The British government has sought to ease food supply pressures in England by exempting certain workers from quarantine rules.
In an announcement late Thursday following mounting pressure from retailers facing staff shortages and empty shelves, it outlined plans for daily COVID-19 testing of critical food industry workers that will effectively allow those who test negative to continue working even if they have been notified on their phones to self-isolate due to contact with someone with the virus.
The move, along with a limited relaxation of self-isolation rules in other key sectors and vital public services, including essential transport, the emergency services and energy industry, came amid growing concerns within government of the impact of the so-called “pingdemic” on many key sectors of the British economy.
Hundreds of thousands of people, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, are having to self-isolate for 10 days after being informed by the National Health Service’s test and trace app that they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.
It was primarily concerns over food supplies that drove the government’s change in approach as more and more workers, including crucial delivery drivers, were having to self-isolate, leading to scenes of empty supermarket shelves and fears of panic-buying by anxious consumers.
The government said it has identified priority locations, including the largest supermarket distribution centres, where testing will begin this week. The program will be expanded to as many as 500 sites next week.
“As we manage this virus and do everything we can to break chains of transmission, daily contact testing of workers in this vital sector will help to minimize the disruption caused by rising cases in the coming weeks, while ensuring workers are not put at risk,” said Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who is also self-isolating after testing positive for the virus last weekend.
The government’s new policy was welcomed by retailers, but many said the government must be prepared to take further action if necessary, potentially bringing forward its previously announced plan to change the self-isolation rules on Aug. 16.
On that date, the government has said it would exempt fully vaccinated individuals from the self-isolation rules. That change comes nearly a month after most legal coronavirus rules in England were lifted. The other nations of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are being more cautious in lifting restrictions.
Alongside the measures to protect food supplies, the government published guidance on Thursday night setting out limited exemptions for 16 other critical workers if their inability to work would have a “major detrimental impact” or risk national security. However, the guidance is already proving difficult to understand.
Under the new guidance, fully vaccinated employees providing what are deemed critical services would be able to keep working and avoid self-isolation if they have been named on a list kept updated by officials.
-From The Associated Press, last updated at 7 a.m. ET
What’s happening in Tokyo
Tokyo reported 1,359 COVID-19 cases on Friday, part of a wave of infection in the capital as the Olympic Games kick off. Tokyo reported 1,979 cases on Thursday, the highest level since January.
The update came ahead of the opening ceremony of the Games. The ceremony was being held mostly without spectators to prevent the spread of coronavirus infections, although some officials, guests and media will attend.
-From Reuters, The Associated Press and CBC News, last updated at 7:05 a.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
As of early Friday morning, more than 192.5 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s case-tracking tool. The reported global death toll stood at more than 4.1 million.
In the Americas, the White House said Thursday that COVID-19 vaccinations are increasing in states hit hard by the delta variant. Coronavirus co-ordinator Jeff Zients says several states with the highest proportions of new infections are seeing residents get vaccinated at a higher rate than the nation as a whole.
Officials cited Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, and Nevada. The delta variant, which spreads more aggressively, now accounts for an estimated 83 per cent of cases nationwide. It is the predominant coronavirus strain in every region.
The World Health Organization said Thursday that new COVID-19 cases have slowed in Africa, “driven by a sharp drop in South Africa, which accounts for the bulk of the continent’s reported cases.”
However, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, cautioned that more needs to be done — and quickly.
“Be under no illusions, Africa’s third wave is absolutely not over,” Moeti said in a statement. “Many countries are still at peak risk and Africa’s third wave surged up faster and higher than ever before.”
In the Asia-Pacific region, Pakistan has passed the grim milestone of one million cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began last year. Pakistan reported another 11 deaths Friday and 1,425 new cases of infection, bringing the country’s tally to 1,000,034 people infected. The nation has confirmed 22,939 deaths.
Meanwhile, Taiwan will ease its COVID-19 restrictions next week, the government said on Friday, as rapidly falling case numbers give authorities confidence to further lower the coronavirus alert level.
In Europe, the fourth wave of infections should hit French hospitals in the second half of August, professor Jean-Francois Delfraissy said this week. Delfraissy is the head of the scientific council that advises the government on COVID-19 responses.
In the Middle East, Israel announced plans this week to allow only people who are deemed immune to COVID-19 or have recently tested negative to enter some public spaces such as restaurants, gyms and synagogues.
-From The Associated Press, CBC News and Reuters, last updated at 7:10 a.m. ET