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‘Pingdemic’: Government urged to tackle Covid app havoc as thousands of workers self-isolate

·4-min read
Millions of people are expected to be pinged by the Covid app in weeks ahead (PA)
Millions of people are expected to be pinged by the Covid app in weeks ahead (PA)

Businesses and unions have called on the government to take action to tackle a rapid rise in the number of people being told to self-isolate.

While ministers have promised that 19 July will be “freedom day”, hundreds of thousands of people are likely to be in self-isolation as case numbers surge and the NHS app “pings” their close contacts.

Latest figures from the NHS show that more than 500,000 alerts were sent to users of the app in the week to 7 July – a rise of almost 50 per cent on the previous week and the highest figure so far.

The so-called “pingdemic” is already causing major problems for employers whose staff are unable to work.

Iceland and Sainsbury’s have reported increased absences, while factories including Nissan’s plant in Sunderland have been impacted by hundreds of staff being told to self-isolate.

Rolls-Royce said it was “approaching a critical point” and may have to halve production if more workers are pinged.

The Unite union has warned of “havoc” on factory production lines unless Covid-19 case numbers are brought under control or rules around who has to self-isolate are relaxed.

The latter option risks further catalysing the spread of the virus at a time when scientists have warned that Boris Johnson's reopening plans are already a “danger to the world”.

More than 1,200 experts from around the globe have condemned the prime minister’s decision to forge ahead with the so-called freedom day on 19 July, describing it as “unscientific and unethical”.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) urged ministers to toughen up back-to-work guidelines and make masks compulsory on public transport and in shops.

Masks will no longer be mandatory in England from Monday but the government says it “expects and recommends” that face coverings to be worn in crowded and enclosed public spaces.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady warned that staff shortages would get worse unless people are kept safe at work.

“The government urgently needs to toughen its confusing and inadequate back-to-work safety guidance, starting with making masks a legal requirement on public transport and in shops," Ms O'Grady said.

“And if we are stop Covid-19 ripping through workplaces workers must be able to afford to self-isolate.”

The TUC is calling for statutory sick pay to be raised from its current level of just £96.35 per week to the equivalent of the living wage.

The NHS app pings someone if they have spent 15 minutes or more in close contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. The individual is then advised to self-isolate for 10 days.

A senior minister said the government was “concerned” by the number of people off work, but suggested a planned tweaking to the app’s sensitivity – to reduce the number of people alerted – would not happen for several weeks yet.

“We’re going to give further thought to how [the app] is a proportionate response,” said communities secretary Robert Jenrick on Thursday. “The government is going to be setting out its plans in the coming weeks.”

Unite has called on the government to ease the isolation requirements earlier than the planned 16 August, when double-jabbed contacts of positive cases will no longer need to isolate.

“It is clear that something has to be done in time for 19 July, or else people will simply start deleting the app en masse to avoid isolation notices,” Mr Turner said.

“There will be public health consequences if test and trace is seen as a nuisance rather than an infection control measure.”

Sir Jonathan Montgomery, former chair of the ethics advisory board for the NHS Test and Trace app, said he would change self-isolation requirements.

“We need to think about the consequences of being pinged,” the professor of healthcare law at University College London told LBC.

“When the app was designed, we didn’t have the ability to reliable home test, we didn’t have very many people jabbed, and the big worrying thing about this virus is that you can pass it on before you know you have it.

“So, I wouldn’t be changing the pinging but I would be changing the consequences of being pinged.”

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