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Home » U.K. Leaders Hail a Return to Normal; Their Phone App Disagrees

U.K. Leaders Hail a Return to Normal; Their Phone App Disagrees

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LONDON — Gas stations closed, garbage collection canceled and supermarket shelves stripped bare of food, water and other essential goods.

In a week when Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised England a return to normality after the end of months of lockdown rules, a coronavirus-weary nation has instead been battered by a new crisis.

This one is being called the “pingdemic.”

With virus case numbers surging again, hundreds of thousands of people have been notified — or pinged — by a government-sponsored phone app asking them to self-isolate for 10 days because they were in contact with someone who had tested positive.

So many workers have been affected that some businesses have closed their doors or started a desperate search for new staff, and a political battle has erupted with the opposition Labour Party warning of a “a summer of chaos” after contradictory statements from the government about how to respond if pinged.

Those notified by the app are not required by law to isolate but the government’s official position is that it wants them to do so. On Thursday, it was planning to publish a list of critical workers to be exempted from self-isolation in order to keep things running.

That followed a warning from the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, of possible disruption to the capital’s transportation network, food supplies and refuse collection services. A police force in the West Midlands said it had been hit by staff shortages. Stores have appealed to customers not to indulge in panic buying, and there have even been calls for the government to consider using the military to help fill a shortfall of truck drivers.

“There does seem to be utter chaos at the heart of government at the moment: You have ministers not speaking from the same script, and that suggests that there isn’t a script,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, adding that it was obvious that a rise in case numbers — which the government itself predicted — would mean more people being pinged.

This was not what the government was hoping for when it lifted most coronavirus legal restrictions in England on Monday, a moment hailed as “Freedom Day” by the tabloids.

Mr. Johnson argues that the country has good levels of protection because of its successful vaccine rollout and that summer is the best time to end the rules because schools are on vacation breaks and there tends to be less virus transmission with people spending more time outdoors.

But the relaxation coincided with a big spike in new cases, numbering around 40,000 a day, prompted by the highly infectious Delta variant. Inevitably that has been reflected in the numbers of people being pinged; in the week of July 8 to 15, more than 600,000 alerts were issued by the app, putting acute strain on many businesses and public services.

Supermarkets have warned of staff shortages, as have trucking firms, and the British Meat Processors Association said that 5 to 10 percent of the work force of some of its companies had been pinged. If the situation deteriorates further, some will be forced to start shutting down production lines, it said.

“I am increasingly concerned about our ability to maintain current levels of absolutely crucial services like public transport, food supplies and bin collections,” Mr. Khan, the London mayor, told one newspaper, The Evening Standard.

So desperate are some companies that they are asking pinged employees not to self-isolate but to test themselves and come into work if they are negative.

To complicate matters, there are two parallel systems of coronavirus warnings in Britain.

In addition to the app, the government has a more traditional contact-tracing system, with a staff that calls people to warn that they may have been exposed. People instructed by phone to self-isolate are legally obliged to do so, whereas the app is purely advisory.

At times, the government has undermined its own calls for people who are pinged to follow that advice.

Mr. Johnson and his chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, were both pinged last weekend because they spent time with the health secretary, Sajid Javid, who had come down with Covid-19. But Downing Street announced that Mr. Johnson and Mr. Sunak would not self-isolate and would instead take part in a pilot project allowing them to continue to work while undergoing regular tests.

So swift was the backlash that the decision was reversed within a couple of hours, with both men promising to obey the app.

Faith in the system was knocked again when a business minister, Paul Scully, pointed out that a ping was simply advisory — a correct statement but one that did not align with continuing calls from Downing Street for people to self-isolate if asked.

And all week the “pingdemic” threw up more tricky questions. What should you do, for example, if you are pinged the day before your wedding? Call the whole thing off?

“Oh gosh,” Victoria Atkins, a Home Office minister, told LBC Radio when asked that question. “The guidance is ‘please, you must stay at home’. That is a terribly, terribly difficult scenario.”

According to media reports, one idea floated within government was to reduce the number of people pinged by weakening the sensitivity of the app, which uses Bluetooth technology to notify those who have been within two meters of an infected person for 15 minutes or more.

That seems to have been rejected on the grounds that it would prevent the app from doing its job.

A more obvious solution would be to exempt those who have the protection of two vaccine doses — more than half the population — though some people can still be infected even after vaccination. The government plans to do this anyway, but not until mid-August, the delay being to allow time for more people to be vaccinated.

But on Thursday Jeremy Hunt, a former health secretary, asked whether it was not time “for the government to listen to public opinion and scrap the 10-day isolation requirement immediately for people who have been double-jabbed.”

“Otherwise,” he warned, referring to the app, “we risk losing social consent for this very, very important weapon against the virus.”

That may already be happening.

The latest data seem to show the number of infections rising faster than the number of pings. That, and the findings of some public opinion surveys, suggest that the app is being quietly deleted from phones up and down the country.

Perhaps worse for the government, the “pingdemic” crisis has illustrated the scale of the gamble Mr. Johnson has taken by scrapping almost all coronavirus restrictions in England — even opening nightclubs — at a time when infections are so high.

“The focus on the ‘pingdemic’ is something of a distraction,” said Professor Bale, who noted that it was the logical consequence of high case numbers. “The concern really is that the virus is running wild again.”


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