A boss at Co Down food company Finnebrogue Artisan has said production lines could grind to a halt if the requirement of seven-day isolation for Covid-19 cases continues.
Writing in today’s Belfast Telegraph, Jago Pearson, chief strategy officer at the Downpatrick-based business, called on the Government to reduce the period to five days.
“For food production, the largest manufacturing sector in Britain, mass quarantining of healthy workers threatens to grind production lines to a halt,” said Mr Pearson.
The company employs 1,200 people in the manufacture of sausages, bacon and plant-based products. It is a major supplier to UK supermarkets.
Mr Pearson told the Belfast Telegraph: "We currently have up to 5% absence attributable to Covid, but are concerned this will rise in coming weeks without action on isolation rules.
"Anything over 10% will put our production lines under significant pressure."
New rules came into force in Northern Ireland on Friday which cut the previous requirement for a 10-day self-isolation period to seven days, provided a patient can provide negative lateral flow results on day six and day seven.
That is the same regime which is in place in England and Wales.
But speaking about NHS absences in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would consider cutting the isolation period if it could be shown not to increase infection.
He said: "Absences, although high, are not as high as it has been at some other points in this pandemic — that's no cause for complacency.
"What we will do is keep the period of isolation under constant review and if we think we can bring it down without increasing infection then of course we will."
Close contacts of Covid-19 cases are also advised to self-isolate, though they can stop doing so if they have a negative lateral flow test.
Matthew Taylor, the head of the UK’s NHS Confederation, has also said consideration should be given to cutting self-isolation to five days because of the impact of staff absences on the health service.
But he has said the move should be carefully considered in case it had the counter-productive effect of spreading infection.
Richard Walker, the head of supermarket chain Iceland, has called for the seven-day period to be cut.
Mr Pearson said that the policy of seven-day isolation was “putting the NHS under almost intolerable strain,” adding: “But it is not just the health service that is in jeopardy.
“Iceland boss Richard Walker has called for isolation to be cut to five days.
"His call will be echoed by the whole food industry.
"We have done so much to keep our staff safe throughout the pandemic by implementing advanced protection and prevention measures at considerable cost.
"Their efforts to feed the nation have been extraordinary. But now we need Government to relax isolation rules — not just to save the NHS — but our essential food industry too.”
Speaking to Sky News, Mr Walker said: 'I think it is fair to say that business is under strain as never before.
"This new variant seems to be a lot more contagious and that is having a big impact.
'My call on government would be firstly to prioritise lateral flow tests for key workers including food retail front line shop workers, but also to revisit the onerous isolation rules.
'Seven days is a long time for people who are triple jabbed when the symptoms are for the vast majority of people not more than a common cold or mild flu.”
Mr Taylor, who was interviewed on Radio 4, said Covid patients could potentially end their isolation if their tests were negative on day five, after also testing on days three and four.
But he said bringing infectious staff back into hospital would be “completely counterproductive because that is going to mean more sickness in the hospital and for staff, so this can't be led by politics or blind hope — it has to be led by the science”.