Over the last couple of weeks there has been an enormous uproar over what has been called the “pingdemic”. In short, the number of people who are now told to isolate, having received a notification by the NHS Test and Trace app. Over 600,000 people in England have been asked to self-isolate in the week to July 14.
Clearly the programme is having a very disruptive effect on multiple industries. According to Sky news, 300 workers on the tube have been told to self-isolate – and subsequently TFL has had no choice but to shut two of its main lines. Similar problems are reported on railways, which have reduced their timetables.
Even more worryingly, England is “facing weeks of disruption to bin collection, transport and food supply due to staff self-isolating”. Already there are troublesome photographs of empty supermarket shelves across the newspapers, and this will no doubt lead to panic among the public.
The Government’s answer to all this is to allow more key workers to take part in its daily (lateral flow) testing scheme, so that – regardless of vaccination status – staff at ports, airports and in border control, among others, are exempt from having to self-isolate. They can do this whether they’re notified by the Covid app or a Test and Trace official, and it will mean that thousands of workers are freed up from the scheme.
However, there are clearly upcoming problems for the Government. For one, hotels and restaurants have been left off the list – leading industry representatives to warn that the UK is in for a “summer of closures”. And ministers have also been told that the UK does not have the testing capacity to bring the “pingdemic” to a quick end.
The upcoming weeks will be a great test for the Government, as to how quickly it can rehabilitate struggling sectors, without vast swathes of the public simply deciding to delete the app taxpayers spent tens of billions on.
Perhaps part of the reason some are taken off guard by the disruption is low expectations of the app. Innumerable articles were written about NHS Test and Trace missing its target. Indeed, the depressing paradox to our current situation is that it shows the app is working – actually too well. Such is its efficacy, that there were calls for it to be made “less sensitive”.
The “pingdemic” is, in fact, coined by the same media which once bemoaned the app’s failures to track contacts, and shone a spotlight on Dido Harding, head of the programme until April 2021, who was accused of failing the nation.
Watching her treatment the past year, it reminded me of that which Kate Bingham, who headed the vaccine task force, received – demonised for being married to a Conservative MP. She is now regarded as a hero and vindicated.
Harding’s job arguably invited more criticism, as when Test and Trace doesn’t work, people are unhappy – and now that it does, people are even more unhappy. Furthermore, it is rarely taken into account that she had to build the app in the worst possible moment – a pandemic – perhaps a large part of why there have been spiralling difficulties and expenses (if you’re going to blame anyone for Test and Trace’s delays, blame successive governments for not running pilots).
In the coming weeks, the Government and its advisers may further their exemption list from the “pingdemic” and tweak the app. Experts say it could “incorporate new science about the length of Covid exposure”, for instance.
But ultimately, the complaints about NHS Test and Trace will beg larger questions – about whether this app was really what people wanted in the first place (and plenty did). One whose success can be measured by how annoying it is. Either way, one wonders if Harding will have her Kate Bingham moment of vindication…