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What is the 'pingdemic' happening in the UK - and could it happen here?

Worker shortages and empty supermarket shelves are all being blamed on the phenomenon.

ALREADY SWELTERING UNDER a summer heatwave, Britons are getting hot and bothered about something else altogether — the ‘pingdemic’.

The story dominates the front pages of most of the UK’s newspapers today with concerns growing about the impact of the phenomenon on the economy.

With the UK government lifting the majority of public health restrictions in England earlier this week, the situation is likely to worsen and politicians are under increasing pressure to resolve the issue.

But what exactly is the ‘pingdemic’ and why is it causing so much trouble?

What’s a ‘ping?’

It’s just a notification from Britain’s version of the Covid tracker app.

Using Bluetooth, the app informs people if they’ve been in close contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19 and tells them to self-isolate for a specified period of time.

That’s it, really.

NHS guidance says that people should self-isolate immediately if they have Covid-19 symptoms, test positive for the virus, live with someone with symptoms or has tested positive, or have been told to isolate by NHS Test and Trace or the NHS Covid-19 app.

People isolating should not go to school, work or public places, use public transport or taxis, go out for food or medicine, have visitors, or go out for exercise.

Sounds like it’s doing its job. What’s the trouble?

Essentially, a lot of people are contracting Covid in the UK, following the lifting of many public health restrictions in the UK in recent weeks while the so-called ‘Delta wave’ is taking hold.

On Tuesday, the UK’s seven-day average of case numbers was around the 45,000 mark, according to the World in Data, which tracks the figures.

That put the seven-day incidence rate at 440.2 per 100,000 people, which translates into a hell of a lot of pings.

The BBC reports that over 600,000 notifications to self-isolate were sent to Britons between 8 and 14 July.

The UK vaccine drive has moved a lot quicker than in the European Union, and the vast majority of adults (almost 70%) are fully vaccinated.

But that still leaves a significant number of people without full protection, especially when you consider that it translates as 45% of the total population are unvaccinated or only have partial protection.

So while the UK is a world leader in vaccination, it’s simply not enough to stop the highly contagious Delta variant from creating a surge in case numbers.

So does every pinged person have to self-isolate?

It’s slightly complicated.

According to the NHS website, if you receive a ping, the guidance is:

  • Self-isolate immediately;
  • Do not leave your home for any reason – if you need food or medicine, order it online or by phone, or ask friends and family to drop it off at your home;
  • Do not have visitors in your home, including friends and family – except for essential care;
  • Try to avoid contact with anyone you live with as much as possible;
  • Any people you live with and any people in your support bubble do not need to self-isolate if you do not have symptoms.

But while there is a legal duty in England for people to self-isolate if they test positive or are contacted by the NHS Test and Trace service, this does not extend to the app.

So people who do not isolate after testing positive or being contacted by NHS Test and Trace can face fines of up to £10,000.

This does not apply to people being pinged.

The government has said this is because users of the official NHS Covid-19 contact tracing app are anonymous and “we cannot force them to self-isolate or identify them if they are not self-isolating”.

And what about the fully vaccinated?

This is the crux of the controversy.

Under the current set of rules, fully vaccinated people who receive a ping are still expected to self-isolate.

Although this rule is set to be scrapped by 16 August, it’s said to be causing chaos at the moment and, naturally, the UK red top newspapers are having a field day with it.

Chaos? What sort of chaos?

Well, there are have been widespread reports of businesses having to drop their shutters because members of their staff have been pinged and forced to self-isolate.

Aside from labour shortages, that old pandemic phenomenon of panic buying is rearing its head as a result of the ‘pingdemic’.

Supermarkets have urged customers not to panic buy in response to reports of emptying shelves, saying they are continuing to receive regular deliveries.

But it has to be pointed out that the ‘pingdemic’ is just one reason for the images of empty shelves that have peppered social media in recent days.

Britain is also experiencing a shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers, the result of an estimated 25,000 European truck drivers deciding to up sticks and leave the country post-Brexit.

There is also a backlog of applications for HGV licences, the Guardian reports.

The ‘pingdemic’, the shortage of HGV drivers and the hot weather were all contributing to delivery glitches, grocers have said, while stressing to consumers that panic buying would create a problem that did not exist.

How has the government responded?

Putting it generously, the UK government’s response has been a bit of mixed bag.

Last weekend, after being pinged by the app himself, Number 10 said Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially would not be self-isolating but quickly had to backtrack because of public outcry.

Earlier this week, UK Under-Secretary of State for Business Paul Scully added to the confusion when he said self-isolating was a decision for individuals and employers.

People should not automatically self-isolate if they are “pinged” by the NHS Covid-19 app but should instead make an “informed decision” about what to do, he said.

He was rather publicly slapped down by Number 10. It released a statement affirming that self-isolation is “crucial” for anyone who receives a ping.

Today, business minister Kwasi Kwarteng said the government will look to publish a “very narrow” list of sectors within which workers could be exempt from the rules.

He told BBC Breakfast the list would be “very narrow, simply because we don’t want to get into a huge debate about who is exempt”.

Could it happen here?

It seems unlikely but it remains to be seen.

On the one hand, the advice attached to Ireland’s Covid-19 Tracker App is slightly different.

According to the HSE website, if you receive a close contact alert from the app, you are advised to:

  • Restrict your movements if you have no symptoms;
  • Self-isolate if you have symptoms.

That’s a lot more nuanced than the British advice, which is to “self-isolate immediately” even if you don’t have symptoms.

That said, a sharp rise in confirmed cases coupled with increased social contact could bring with it a rise in alerts.

Case numbers are on the rise here, with our 14-day incidence rate at 246 cases per 100,000 yesterday – up from 93 cases per 100,000 in June.

And with restrictions on indoor dining set to be lifted from next week, we could see that number rise even further.

But it’s really all about how many people use the Irish Covid Tracker app. Although the number of daily users has declined since it was first released, we know that tens of thousands of people (at least) still have the app on their phones.

So an Irish ‘pingdemic’ is theoretically possible but the immediate impact might be quite so dramatic as it has been in the UK. We’ll have to wait and see if we get a rise in the number of alerts being sent over the coming weeks.

With reporting from Press Association.

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