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Pingdemic - Have Covid-19 Safeguards Run Wild?

Safeguarding the public from the Covid-19 pandemic has always been a delicate balancing act. Yet with over 600,000 British workers now self-isolating as a result of ‘pings’ from the NHS contact tracing app, some are beginning to wonder if the solution is worse than the problem. Over 25% of children were absent from their classes last week, stoking fears that pupils are falling further behind after already suffering a year of pandemic disruption. Staff shortages have started to threaten vital food and fuel supply chains, leaving supermarket shelves bare as well as impacting emergency services; greatly increasing police and ambulance response times. Both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition leader Keir Starmer are now self-isolating, as what has been dubbed the ‘pingdemic’ rages on. So, have the virus safeguards done more harm than good?

Short term solutions to the system which has been slammed by business leaders as ‘broken’ are already being sought, as the Prime Minister rushes to announce a list of key industries that are exempt from self-isolation rules. Boris Johnson himself seemingly has not been the greatest advocate of the current isolation regime, attempting to avoid his own self-isolation ironically coinciding with Britain’s July 19th Freedom Day by claiming he was part of a new pilot scheme focusing on daily testing rather than isolation. The BBC has reported that which particular pilot scheme he was referring to seems rather up for debate, but the existence of pilot schemes which champion daily testing as opposed to self-isolation perhaps give a glimpse into an alternative approach to keeping case numbers down while also keeping the economy moving.

Advocates for the current self-isolation regime will likely make the point that is not the system that is broken, but the Delta variant which is to blame. The highly transmissible Delta variant has driven daily Covid infection rates back up to over 40,000, despite 88% of UK adults now having had at least one dose of the Covid vaccine. It seems that the pandemic is still raging on as it works its way through the young and even those who have been vaccinated. This has been confirmed as Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, has announced that 40% of people admitted to hospital with COVID in the UK have had two doses of a coronavirus vaccine. The difference between this wave and previous waves is that the number of deaths has not risen in tandem with case numbers, with seemingly many more cases of asymptomatic or mild Covid being reported.

As the lethality of the pandemic, for now at least, seems to abate, the more immediate problems caused by the system designed to contain it have come to the forefront. The British Retail Consortium has warned supply chains are beginning to fail under the strain, with HGV drivers particularly in short supply as existing labour shortages caused by Brexit combine with the Pingdemic to create a perfect storm. Undoubtedly, the vulnerable of society which isolation requirements seek to protect will suffer from potential panic buying and shortages, just as was the case at the start of the pandemic. Andrew Opie, director of Food & Sustainability at the BRC has argued that: “Government needs to act fast. Retail workers and suppliers, who have played a vital role throughout this pandemic, should be allowed to work provided they are double vaccinated or can show a negative coronavirus test, to ensure there is no disruption to the public's ability to get food and other goods.”

The sensitivity of the NHS app has come under fire in recent days, as the Daily Mail reports several cases of individuals being pinged because their neighbours who live in a separate house have Covid. The government however refuses to budge on any app sensitivity amendments, instead stating that from August 16th, double jabbed Britons will no longer need to quarantine if pinged, providing they test negative for the virus. This however will do little to alleviate the current bottlenecks, as the hundreds of thousands who have been pinged will be in isolation for 10 days, and as the case numbers rise, they may be joined by many more.

It may well be the case that the current dire effects of the pingdemic will prove to be short term. Although the government has shown intransigence with its current policy, as the many U-turns of recent weeks have shown that approach may not remain in place for long as community and business leaders continue to express alarm. This could be an opportunity to transition to a more sustainable and sensible programme of infection control, based around individual testing. For the moment however, the country looks set to face more disruption, despite the progress that has been made with vaccinations. We can only hope that we learn from the mistakes that have been made and once again take pride in the great efforts of resilience and community spirit that the British public and keyworkers have shown throughout the pandemic.



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