Anyone watching the news this week will have felt a sense of déjà vu. Almost a year and a half on from the start of the pandemic, when our screens were filled with images of bare shelves as people stockpiled essentials, food shortages are once again in the news.
This time, however, it is not the pandemic we have to thank, but the pingdemic.
In the week prior to July 14, a fever-inducing 618,903 people in England and Wales were pinged by the NHS Covid-19 app. To give that some perspective, that’s 70,000 more people than all UK primary and secondary school teachers combined who received a push notification telling them to self-isolate for 10 days.
It should come as no surprise that such a rigmarole is unsustainable. With over half a million people being advised to stay home with immediate effect, the NHS app’s pings are disrupting industries and supply chains across the board. While businesses scramble to find solutions to staff shortages, some businesses have reduced their opening hours and others have temporarily closed. Iceland needs to recruit 2,000 temporary staff to weather the storm, and the Co-op 3,000. The CBI warned that the app is “closing down the economy”. Oh ‘appy days.
The Government needs to devise a plan that deals with case numbers without further destroying livelihoods in the process.
People cannot be expected to stay home to protect the NHS (yet again) when it makes no sense, logically or financially, to do so. Almost two-thirds of adults in the UK are fully vaccinated, and 90 per cent have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Given that even part-vaccination reduces the chance of being hospitalised with Covid-19, people should not keep locking down on the off-chance they carry what will result in a mild form of the virus.
From 16 August the Government plans to lift the 10 day self-isolation recommendation for the fully vaccinated, shifting to a “contact testing rather than contact isolation” system. For the supposedly keyest of key workers – Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng promised that those qualifying as such will be few – this option will be available to them sooner. But with the chorus of pings growing ever louder, the Government needs to review its guidance with the same earnestness it showed when telling us that freedom day is anything but.
An immediate and universal roll out of the contact testing get-out-of-jail-free card, seemingly reserved for the elites only until now, would be a place to start; widely accessible free rapid PCR tests and lateral flow tests offer the obvious solution. Testing is easy to administer and would prevent newly somewhat-free Britain from grinding to a halt before you can say Jack Robinson. And if a vaccine doesn’t guarantee against catching Covid, then a system based on tests, not vaccines, offers a safer way forwards regardless.
Regular testing also provides a better approach than the bandaids stuck on the app’s wounds to date. The most recent app update will stress the advisory nature of the isolation guidance, but what use is that in the current climate? When Boris Johnson was pinged this week he initially was on a pilot of the contact testing approach, only to retreat into isolation after buckling to political pressure from Labour. That’s right: Boris ‘recovered-from-covid and fully-vaccinated’ Johnson, is isolating. If someone so integral to the leadership of the country with as many antibodies inside of him as he does is isolating, then no amount of stressing the advisory nature of the ping will alleviate the pressure many feel to stay at home.
Alternatively, the Government could shut down the app altogether. Its rollout has been bumpy (not to mention costly) to say the least, and with exposure detection not knowing if you’ve come into contact with a person indoors or outdoors – which would dramatically alter the risk posed to you – the progress made by the app will hardly smash the glass ceiling.
The public’s lack of confidence in the app shows, with the cost to livelihoods being too high to endure any longer. More than a third of people aged between 18 and 34 years who used to have the app have deleted it, with even more planning to do so in the near future. At this rate, there’ll be no users left to reap the rewards of an update of the scheme, whenever it comes.
If the Government wants to manage the spread of Covid cases, it needs to come up with a plan for those off the grid and those who, for whatever warped reason, have decided to let the app continue taking up their valuable phone storage. A bigger focus on encouraging regular testing would be a good place to start.