York Press column – Self-isolation rules must not derail York’s recovery
July 29, 2021
While the lifting of restrictions on social interaction from 19th July has meant York can begin to enjoy a summer closer to normality, the impact of covid measures remains very concerning for our city. Just as local businesses are beginning to rebuild from the devastating impact of 16 months of disruption, they are being hit by the developing ‘pingdemic’ of recent weeks, with large numbers of staff forced to self-isolate after being ‘pinged’ by NHS test and trace as having been in close contact with an infected person.
We must have no illusions about the seriousness of this for our still-fragile local economy, and for employment. Businesses are now technically free of restrictions and fully open, but in reality are being forced to limit their trade and potentially close, hamstringing their efforts to generate the income to retain staff, and return our high streets to their normal bustle.
The gravity of the situation was emphasised to me by the group of local business owners I met last week, who made clear that self-isolation rules must change to facilitate York’s recovery. The government has thankfully taken a step in the right direction, addressing the risk of empty supermarket shelves and affected public services by announcing that critical workers in the food supply chain, the emergency services and transport staff, can take daily tests rather than self-isolate.
However, at the time of writing, this does nothing to help all the other enterprises being clobbered by enforced staff absence. In particular, it does not aid York’s large hospitality and tourism industry, or the wider small business sector that underpins our city’s prosperity. Although I appreciate the need to prioritise food supply, yet again we are in a position where large companies like supermarkets are getting special dispensation, while small enterprises and hospitality bear the brunt of covid measures even though they can least afford to do so.
I believe the government therefore must urgently consider extending the daily testing option in place of self-isolation to many more sectors of the economy. There is solid evidence for the effectiveness of this approach, with a recent study of school pupils by Oxford University finding daily testing was better at preventing virus spread than isolating large groups, and did not lead to covid transmission.
However, the best way to solve the problem is to bring forward the lifting of the self-isolation requirement for double-vaccinated people from 16th August, removing at a stroke the sword hanging over York businesses. I believe this change should have occurred simultaneously with the 19th July lifting of restrictions, and pressed the Health Secretary Sajid Javid on this in the House of Commons earlier this month.
I was disappointed by his answer that the 16th August date would remain, but having been impressed by Sajid’s open-mindedness since his appointment, think this position could change if a strong argument is made. Our area would be especially well-served by a shift to a double jab policy, with enthusiastic vaccine take-up reflecting the solid good sense and public-spiritedness of the local community. As of 20th July, fully 467,000 people across York and North Yorkshire have received both vaccine doses, and 568,000 at least one.
Last week also saw the government’s decision to preserve City of York Council as a separate authority from the new more powerful unitary North Yorkshire County Council that is being created. This regional devolution process is vital for our city to have the same opportunities as areas led by successful mayors like Teeside and the West Midlands. As a strong supporter of the alternative ‘East-West’ model, under which York would empower itself by merging with Ryedale, Selby, and Scarborough, I am naturally disconcerted.
A once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix long-running failures in York’s local government has been missed. York remains too small to maximise its potential to deliver effective, cost-efficient services, a fact highlighted by the Council’s recent failure to collect green waste bins for 6 weeks ‘because of covid’, despite other authorities doing this successfully. However, my attention will now turn to the details of the proposed devolution deal, with the potential to deliver much-needed investment and new jobs as we rebuild from coronavirus.