Union leaders have set the stage for a battle with the UK government over plans to exempt more workers from self-isolation if they receive a Covid-19 alert.
The government is concerned critical industries could grind to a halt as the “pingdemic” forces thousands of workers to remain at home.
Ministers are due to meet later on Monday to discuss the expansion of daily testing sites to discuss whether to expand the exemption programme.
Supermarket workers, train drivers, lorry drivers, police officers, binmen and border officials are already among the limited number of workers who do not need to self-isolate if they receive an alert. These employees will be asked to take a daily coronavirus test to continue attending work.
The Covid-19 operations subcommittee of Cabinet will decide whether to widen the number of jobs eligible for the scheme, though the hospitality industry is not expected to be covered.
The government has so far resisted calls to expand the scheme, but the scale of the problem was highlighted by the most recent NHS figures which showed more than 600,000 people in England and Wales were told to quarantine in the week to July 14.
However, union leaders have given warnings that encouraging key workers to come to work after receiving an alert could expose people to Covid-19.
Steve Hedley, senior assistant general secretary of the RMT transport union, encouraged workers to ignore the exemption.
“Why should our people be infected with Covid? They are panicking and trying to force our workers back to work, where it’s not safe,” he told The Telegraph.
“We have discussed the possibility of taking action at a senior level, and I can say that nothing has been ruled out.”
Children’s Minister Vicky Ford struck a cautious note on Monday by encouraging people to keep following self-isolation orders.
“We all know how quickly [the infection rate] can go back up again,” she told Sky News.
“It does show how important it is to take issues like self-isolation seriously. We do know what an important tool it is.”
Ranjit Singh Boparan, from the 2 Sisters Food Group, Britain’s biggest chicken manufacturer, said it was extremely difficult to get food on supermarket shelves at present with the supply chain severely disrupted by people being off work.
“You just need one element not to work and at the moment there’s several elements not working,” he said.
“We might have to go back to basic food again.”