The Pingdemic: what do small businesses need to know about the rise in self-isolation figures?

Freedom Day has arrived, alongside a huge surge in cases and millions of workers being forced to self-isolate. We ask small business owners how they are coping with the challenge.

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On Monday 19 July, the government officially lifted all remaining coronavirus restrictions. For the first time since March of last year, nightclubs can reopen at full capacity, gigs and festivals can return, and small businesses no longer have to enforce Covid-safety measures.

But in the run-up to this event, coronavirus cases have soared to an average of 50,000 new cases per day. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people are being asked to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace. Both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak spent their ‘Freedom Day’ self-isolating at home.

So how does the problem affect SMEs?

We asked small businesses for their thoughts on the so-called ‘Pingdemic’ and the challenges it might bring; as well as looking at which industries are exempt from the guidelines, and how you can reduce the impact of self-isolating employees.

How do the guidelines affect SMEs?

Due to their modest team sizes, an employee being told to self isolate has a much bigger impact if they’re working for a small firm. Should multiple staff test positive, the issue could soon spiral out of control, potentially reducing staffing levels to an amount that could lead to temporary closure.

After the chaos of the previous year, most companies can ill afford to lose more money. A recent report by Simply Business estimates the total cost of coronavirus restrictions to be upwards of £126.6 bn, at an average expense of £22,461 per company.

Particularly for those industries that rely on in-person customer service – like retail and hospitality – the current self-isolating guidelines could cause delays or reduced footfall and consequently, a devastating loss of revenue.

Tony Bailey - Simply Hike

Tony Bailey is director of several online retailers including Simply Hike. Bailey told us: “Last week we had a ‘temporary worker' test positive, and although 40 per cent of the workforce never left the office, his phone was located on the coat hooks in the warehouse, which was 2m below the main office. This subsequently pinged the employees to self-isolate, which saw three quarters of the workforce absent.

We were forced to suspend our ‘swift delivery', there were delays in placing orders from the buying department, and our customer enquiries were answered slower due to reduced workforce.”

There is also the issue of sick pay. On today’s living wage, if an employee has to isolate themselves for ten full days due to COVID-19, employers would need to shell out a whopping £712.50. Even with statutory sick pay (SSP) the cost would still be £154.16 per employee.

That’s also a good-case scenario. Current estimates are that there could be up to 10 million people self isolating this summer, meaning that employees will likely be pinged by Test and Trace multiple times.

How are small businesses feeling about the Pingdemic?

Amongst small businesses, reaction to Freedom Day was mixed. Many owners have told us that, due to concerns about the impact of potential future waves, they are keen to continue with Covid-safety measures, such as masks and the one-metre plus rule. This, combined with the Pingdemic, means most are cautious about celebrating too early.

Louise King - Window Central

Louise King is head of HR at Windows Central, a retail company. King commented: “Many of our members of staff have been pinged by the NHS track and trace app and have had to self isolate at home, which has left our business in complete disarray. There needs to be clarity from the Government with regards to testing – is it still going to be funded? If not, this also has major financial implications. We need a new system which allows those that test negative to come immediately back to work.”

Antony GIG

Anthony Woodcock is Co-Founder of GIG, a staffing and recruiting app for the events and hospitality industries. Woodcock said: “Removing most or all restrictions but retaining isolation and track and trace to me makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. More people being forced to isolate doesn’t just make it harder for business to operate but it reduces the number of people out there in the economy spending.”

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) is an organisation which represents 190,000 businesses in the UK. Its president, Lord Karan Bilimora, has already spoken out against the existing rules.

In a press release, Bilimora requested that the government protect businesses by “immediately ending the self-isolation period of ten days for people who are double-jabbed and providing a route out of isolation for those not yet fully vaccinated through daily lateral flow tests. Against the backdrop of crippling staff shortages, speed is of the essence.”

What are the rules if your employee has to self isolate?

If your employee is told to self isolate by NHS Test and Trace, or if they start showing symptoms of coronavirus, they are legally obligated to stay at home for ten full days from when you first felt ill.

However, there is a way your employees can end their isolation period early by getting a free PCR test completed as soon as possible. You are allowed to leave isolation to get a test at a test site. Or, you can order a home test to take to a priority post box. It’s free of charge and can be done on the government website.

If the test is positive, the employee must complete the remainder of their 10-day self isolation. Failure to do so can result in a fine, starting from £1,000, so it’s definitely not worth breaking this rule.

But if the test is negative, the employee will no longer be required to stay at home and can come back to work as soon as they are able to or no longer feeling unwell. That means your business can reduce the impact of being pinged by reacting quickly, safely and most importantly, legally.

Remember, your staff members would still need to self isolate for 10 full days if they get a negative test result and:

  • Someone they live with has tested positive
  • They had a PCR test following a positive rapid lateral flow test, and there were more than 2 days between the tests (England only)

 Which industries are exempt from the guidelines?

On Thursday, the UK government released a list of 16 industries where workers will be able to use testing as an alternative to self isolation.

Under the new rules, workers will only be exempt if their employer has received a letter from the government on which their name is listed.

However, if you think your company qualifies as a critical service then you can also apply to the relevant government department to have your employees added to the list.

Critical workers who are pinged by the NHS Test and Trace app can leave self isolation early for work purposes, as long as they are fully vaccinated, are not showing COVID-19 symptoms, and have not tested positive for coronavirus.

The list of industries includes:

  • Energy
  • Digital infrastructure
  • Food production and supply
  • Waste
  • Veterinary medicine
  • Essential chemicals
  • Essential transport
  • Medicines
  • Medical devices
  • Clinical consumable supplies

Exemption for fully vaccinated contacts is expected to be introduced for all other non-qualifying industries on August 16.

If your industry is not featured on the list then your business does not qualify for critical service status and your workforce should continue to follow the existing self isolation guidelines.

How can small businesses prepare?

To many SMEs, it might feel like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, given the lifting of restrictions and the Pingdemic. But there are still a few ways you can prepare.

Prioritise good communication

Do you have a clear policy for staff on what to do if they show symptoms? What channel can you use to best communicate any updates on things like sick pay? How will your employees inform you if they get told to self isolate by the app? These are all questions you need to yourself in order to ensure you have the right communication in place for the challenges ahead.

Maybe your workplace communicates through instant messaging apps. Perhaps your staff prefers email. Whichever the case, it’s important to make sure that all employees are fully on board with one, consistent channel that all staff members can easily access, to make implementing safety decisions easier.

This is particularly crucial if one of your employees is pinged by NHS Test and Trace. If you react quickly enough, you can inform contacts the app might not be aware of, which could prevent more staff members being forced to self isolate.

Think about keeping safety measures

The current rise in cases has left a lot of small firms wrestling with how far to loosen their existing safety measures.

At the moment you can still order free rapid lateral flow tests from the government webpage. Due to concerns over the tests’ accuracy however, it’s a good idea to stick with other steps like social distancing and PPE rather than relying on one course of action. Larger firms and organisations, for example Tesco and TfL, have said that masks and the one-metre rule will remain mandatory for their customers.

Jackie Pear Tree Inn

Jackie Cosens is owner and manager of Pear Tree Inn, a farmhouse kitchen in rural Whitley. Cosens said: “From our end, the plan is to continue to keep our guests and team feeling safe. We know there are plenty of people who don’t yet feel comfortable coming inside a pub or restaurant, so our under-canvas terrace will still be available. We also plan to continue with our successful mobile ordering process, Onvi, set up to help us manage footfall.”

Vaccines are another major topic of discussion for business owners. There's currently no law that says people must have the Covid jab, however you can still remove any disincentives for not having the vaccine by offering paid leave to employees attending an appointment.

One thing to watch out for is an emerging market of Covid-safety products, such as temperature screening tools. Government advice is not to rely on these types of products as many are not accredited as a medical device by MHRA and there is little scientific evidence to suggest they work.

Encourage remote working

Lots of companies have adopted a work from home approach for the office. ONS data reveals that, of adults currently homeworking, 85% want a “hybrid” approach of both office and remote working in future.

For industries like tech and marketing, the transition to remote working happened almost organically. But it’s a lot harder for customer-facing industries to leave their workplaces behind.

If any of your employees can work remotely, now is the time to get them sorted with the correct computer infrastructure to allow them to work from home. It might only be possible for certain staff or even just specific days – like for monthly or weekly admin tasks – but don’t be so quick to dismiss the safety benefits that remote working can bring.

Chris Biggs is a partner at Theta Global Advisors, an advisory and consultancy firm. Biggs commented: “While employers may instinctively want to see their staff back in the office and for work to go ‘back to normal' as soon as possible, this is not necessarily the strongest or most sensible approach. 

“Employees have proven they can be effective when given flexible options or working from home, and employers need to respond to this with trust and structured flexibility approaches allowing employees to alter as necessary.”

If you want to learn more, our return to work guide discusses the pros and cons of home, hybrid, or office working.

What financial support is available?

So far, there has been no additional support announced for workplaces with self-isolating employees due to the NHS Test and Trace app. But there are a few other, relevant programmes you can take advantage of to claim some of that money back.

One is the Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme which promises to repay up to 2 weeks of SSP which has been paid to former or current employees due to coronavirus. If you’re self-employed and have trading profits of under £50,000 per year, you might also be able to claim for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme.

Employees can apply for a Test and Trace Support Payment of £500. You qualify for the scheme if you cannot work from home and would lose income by self-isolating or staying at home to care for a child.

Of course, other coronavirus financial support schemes are still available. If you’re a retail, hospitality or leisure business, you should qualify for exemption from business rates in the 2020-2021 tax year. You can also still apply for the Recovery Loan Scheme until December 2021.

Conclusion

Freedom Day might have been sold as the lifting of all coronavirus restrictions, but there are currently no plans by the UK government to alter the self isolation rules until 16 August. That means that staff level disruption will likely continue for most small businesses.

Until then, it’s encouraging to hear about SMEs with preventative measures and contingency plans already in place. The Pingdemic has brought another challenge to an already tough year for small businesses – but if there’s anything the past year has shown, it’s that this resilient community can adapt to a crisis.

Helena is from Yorkshire and joined Startups in 2021 from a background in B2B communications. She has previously written for a popular fintech startup covering everything from money-saving tips to cultural reviews.

She is particularly interested in project management software and the films of Peter Jackson.

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