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Covid-19: TechUK urges government to tweak self-isolation policy for critical datacentre workers

TechUK wants datacentre operators to be allowed to run their own "test and release" protocols for Covid-negative workers that have been told to self-isolate by NHS Track and Trace

TechUK wants the government to consider letting datacentre operators run their own “test and release” system so that staff who are told to self-isolate by the NHS Track and Trace service can return to work faster if they test negative for Covid-19. 

The proposal is borne out of concerns raised by the tech trade body and its members that the government’s current self-isolation policy for critical workers, which covers digital infrastructure and datacentre personnel, is too inflexible and onerous.

In a positioning statement, TechUK described the policy as “impractical” and said it “threatens to undermine” the resiliency of the UK’s digital infrastructure by exacerbating the coronavirus-related staffing shortages many datacentre operators are already dealing with.

“Government has identified critical sectors eligible for limited exemption from the obligation to self-isolate, which enables organisations so designated to allow fully vaccinated staff back into the workplace following a negative test. However, a very high bar has been set for both the eligibility criteria and the process,” said TechUK.

“Digital infrastructure is among those eligible, this listing does not confer pre-exemption. Concessions are granted on a case-by-case basis, with formal government approval required for every single individual before return to work.”

Under the terms of the critical workers self-isolation policy, published by the Department of Health and Social Care on 23 July 2021, a limited number of named individuals can return to work before their 10-day self-isolation period is up if they are double vaccinated, and have secured written permission from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to do so.

These individuals should be ones whose absence from work is likely to lead to a “loss or compromise” of the infrastructure in question, resulting in a “major detrimental impact on the availability, integrity, or delivery of essential services” or have a significant impact “on national security, national defence or the functioning of the state”, the DHSC policy document stated.

“The process is exceptional for these specific circumstances. It is not intended to avoid all disruption to services that will result from the need for people to self-isolate,” it added.

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Emma Fryer, associate director of datacentres at TechUK, said the policy has not been well received from operators who are running sites short-handed because so many of their staff have been told to self-isolate by the NHS Track and Trace app.

“The datacentre community is not happy about this, and what seems particularly wayward is that the government have suddenly decided to set a really high bar to allow people to be released from the requirement to self-isolate after being pinged by Track and Trace,” she said.

Throughout the pandemic, datacentre operators have proven themselves to be highly adept at running strict infection control protocols that have served to keep their staff safe and ensure business continuity, before testing and vaccines for the virus were widely available, she said.  

Datacentre operators have proven they are up to the job and should be allowed to run then own “test and release” protocols, she added.

“For the past 18 months, we’ve had two very serious waves of infection, and the operators managed that from an infection control perspective – without having any visibility of who may and may not have been exposed to the virus – very successfully,” continued Fryer. 

“And now we’ve got that extra bit of information [through the app] about who might have been exposed, and the operators aren’t allowed to manage the situation from themselves – and that just seems completely contradictory.”

This policy will remain in place until 16 August 2021, DHSC has confirmed, from which date fully vaccinated people will be exempt from having to self-isolate if told by the NHS Trace and Trace service they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.

The policy’s introduction comes at a time when various sectors – including hospitality, retail and transport – are reporting staff shortages, due to high numbers of their workers being told to self-isolate.

This uptick in the number of people being told to self-isolate has come on the back of rising infection rates in the UK, and a loosening of restrictions that previously mandated social distancing and mask wearing in public places to arrest the spread of the virus.

TechUK successfully lobbied for data infrastructure workers, including those employed by datacentres, to be afforded keyworker status during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020.

The positioning statement also acknowledges the “strong support” DCMS has provided the datacentre sector with throughout the pandemic to ensure to ensure views of digital infrastructure workers are factored into the government’s coronavirus policies.

Fryer echoed this sentiment, and said she hopes the government will rejig the policy to account for the fact that the datacentre community is well-versed in what needs to be done to keep its sites safe, secure and operational.

“The government is so pro digital infrastructure and has shown that it understands the importance of digital services where the functioning of the economy is concerned, but then it won’t protect the sector or allow it to protect itself and its ability to function, and that just seem not right,” she added.

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