In the UK, the 'pingdemic' is only a part of the problem

The government has to balance public health with keeping food supplies and transport services moving

It might not be the world’s biggest news story, but it’s news in the UK where I live: my local newsagent is refurbishing his store. He replaced the front of the shop, stripped back the walls, threw out old fittings and installed new ones. He bought expensive chiller cabinets for food and drink. It cost a lot of money and time and he has been working non-stop, because when you sell newspapers and other goods seven days a week you need to take deliveries, yes, seven days a week. And that’s where it’s gone wrong. A third of his new shelves are empty, including the ones he hoped would be full of soft drinks for the summer. He’s also waiting for supplies of ice cream. The problem is Britain’s “pingdemic”.

Delivery drivers, shop workers, food production workers, school children and others are being notified by text on their phones that they should self-isolate because of coronavirus. At least 600,000 are off work. Our local florist has shut with a sad sign saying: “We are now closed until autumn unfortunately due to lack of staff.”

For my newsagent, “it is like going into the boxing ring every morning waiting to get beaten up” because he never knows what, if anything, of his stock will arrive because drivers and suppliers may be told at short notice to stay at home. Customers are annoyed. The newsagent is losing money and he is paying for the refurbishment of a shop with all those empty shelves.

The way it works is that if you have downloaded the National Health Service phone app, it “pings” when you are in close proximity to someone who has tested positive for coronavirus, even though you may not be infected or perhaps you are double vaccinated. Unless the rules have changed while I am writing this you are supposed to self-isolate for 10 days.

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A true Freedom Day would mean small family businesses like my newsagent’s need to survive the pandemic and the 'pingdemic'

One of my daughters had to self-isolate two weeks ago because a temporary helper at her school tested positive. That meant all my daughter’s classmates, 32 children, were sent home, even though she tested negative and none of her friends has, as far as we know, caught coronavirus.

Another friend tells the story of a neighbour in Bristol who was “pinged” and self-isolated at home, only to be “pinged” again a few days later when she had not left her house. Then she realised it was almost certainly because her apartment is above a busy shop. The NHS app must have detected someone in the shop, about three metres below her, through the floor, who tested positive.

Supermarket chains are worried that they are not getting all the deliveries they need. And even when deliveries arrive there are not enough workers to stack the shelves. One supermarket group, Iceland, wants to hire 2,000 temporary workers to fill the gaps. In all of this I have some sympathy for the British government. Having a test and trace app is a good idea, but the rules on who should be pinged and what they should do about these alerts need to evolve.

We have seen a summer upswing in coronavirus cases, but the government also, as always, has to balance public health with keeping food supplies and transport services moving. Unfortunately many of us have lost trust in the government since Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s slogan about following scientific “data not dates”, while at the same time he removed coronavirus precautions last week and called it “Freedom Day”. Repeatedly, Mr Johnson has set dates for changing the rules and then ignored data that contradicts his coronavirus calendar. His trumpeting of “Freedom Day” when coronavirus cases have been going up proved to be freedom only from common sense.

In the most recent YouGov poll 60 per cent of British people said they thought Boris Johnson was untrustworthy. An opposition MP, Dawn Butler, was thrown out of the House of Commons last week for calling Mr Johnson a serial liar, even though the evidence overwhelmingly supports her statement.

But there have been some coronavirus bonuses. Modernisers within the NHS have tried for years to introduce up-to-date data and communications software. Experts have told me the pandemic has done more in 18 months to get the NHS to modernise its communications than all the discussions and planning over the past 20 years.

But a true Freedom Day would mean small family businesses like my newsagent’s, the backbone of any country’s economy, need to survive the pandemic and the "pingdemic". Mr Johnson and Health Secretary Sajid Javid should be sympathetic. After all, they have also both been “pinged", and are both in self-isolation. It may be too late for Mr Johnson, but if a period of isolation were to result in a period of reflection, he might promise less, use slogans less and achieve more.

The "pingdemic", in other words, is only a part of our problem.

Published: July 26th 2021, 2:25 PM
Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National