Analysis Domestic Politics Politics

Pingdemic puts the UK Government on alert

Ed Halford examines how the track and trace policy is interfering with ‘Freedom Summer’

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Image Credit: Pippa Fowles

Ping. “You need to self-isolate immediately” darts across your smartphone. This is the message everyone dreads to receive and is the cause behind what is now dubbed as the UK’s ‘pingdemic’. As restrictions relaxed before ‘Freedom Day’, between the 8 and 15 July, 618,903 people were told to self-isolate via the Covid-19 app and the number of pings is still increasing day by day. The app’s extreme sensitivity to surrounding cases of Covid-19, alongside the UK Government’s mixed messaging, has caused chaos for small and large businesses across the country. Employers and employees nationwide have been left questioning whether ‘Freedom Day’ was anything more than a gimmick.

To protect vital public services and to keep supermarket shelves stocked, the government recently responded to the pingdemic carnage by announcing that a limited number of critical workers would qualify for a daily testing scheme, which would mean that they would not need to self-isolate. Examples of the sectors in the economy fortunate enough to qualify are those such as essential transport, border control and medicine. These exemptions aren’t drastic considering that most of these workers are in jobs which are vital for the public’s safety and health. The recent addition of supermarket depot workers at 500 sites which have been identified by the government as “key strategically” demonstrates that the pingdemic is causing a severe staffing crisis. Back in 2016, when dire warnings of empty shelves were predicted in the event of Brexit, it is unlikely that any political commentator could have foreseen self-isolation rules - rather than traffic jams at Calais and Dover - provoking nationwide panic buying.

Those eligible for exemptions are predicted to only cover up to 10,000 workers and small business owners have expressed their frustration with the double jabbed still finding themselves bound by the same self-isolation rules. Not until the 16 August will the double jabbed no longer have to self-isolate for 10 days upon meeting a positive case, and the government have even indicated that this date isn’t ‘set in stone’. When questioned by Sky News about the certainty of the date, George Eustice, Environment Secretary, said there was scope for this day to “always change in either direction”. With Boris Johnson facing increasing opposition from Tory backbenchers towards his plans for domestic vaccine passports, moving this date forward could just be the ‘olive branch’ No.10 uses to calm the intensifying resentment towards the current state of the track and trace policy.

Businesses can apply for their staff to be exempt from the self-isolation rules via the government website “NHS Test and Trace in the workplace”, although receiving exemptions will likely be a timely and costly process, with exemptions only being made on a case-by-case basis. Speaking to the Eastern Daily Press, Steve Magnall, a co-owner of the Two Magpies Bakery Brand, expressed his exasperation with the track and trace policy when he said: “If we all know people who are doubled jabbed won’t have to self-isolate in a few weeks time, why aren’t we just doing it”. In addition to concerns about the timing with which the restrictions have been lifted, data from YouGov has suggested that there is already a large proportion of the public who are not registering their social interactions with the app.

In the wake of growing speculation that Covid-19 app users were immediately deleting the app once they had checked into venues, YouGov found in their July 20 investigation that 10 percent of smartphone users deleted the app after it had been downloaded and 31 percent of respondents hadn’t even bothered to download the app at all. However, YouGov’s most concerning finding for the government is that those aged between 18-24 are the age group most likely to delete the app, as only this week Public Health England’s latest Coronavirus report revealed that in the week to 18 July, the 20-29 age group experienced the highest Covid-19 rates since mass testing first begun. Despite 17 percent of 18–24 year-olds deleting the app, this figure is still marginal. The very fact that 58.4 percent of 18–25 year-olds have already received their first dose of the vaccine, even though the wait for their ‘call’ has been the longest, suggests that it would be wrong to interpret the attitude of this 17 percent as representative of the entire young population’s approach to the risk of transmission.

With the Prime Minister and Rishi Sunak only recently attempting to avoid their own self-isolation rules via a pilot testing scheme, the government is facing a new challenge of shaking off the public perception that there is one rule for the few, and another for the many. It could be suggested that what best sums up the government’s attitude towards the observance of the Covid-19 rules is Jeremy Corbyn’s “For the many, not the few” campaign slogan but just written in reverse. It is without a doubt that the UK currently finds itself in a unique position in comparison with the rest of the world, as its vaccine rollout plan continues to be a success - but ultimately, cases continue to rise. With vaccines preventing the high rate hospitalisation admissions experienced during the pandemic’s second wave, the government’s competency in dealing with this pingdemic will likely determine their political fortunes in the months to come.

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