The UK government is on Thursday battling to get a grip over the country’s so-called “pingdemic" after the official COVID-19 smartphone app pinged, or alerted, over 600,000 people to self-isolate in just one week earlier this month. The National Health Service (NHS) app alert is advisory and not enforceable by law, unlike a phone call from the NHS Test and Trace team.
However, the government direction is for people to self-isolate for 10 days after being pinged about exposure to someone they would have come in contact with within the community who later tested positive for COVID-19. There are growing complaints from businesses and supermarkets that the alerts are causing serious staff shortages and affecting services and the supply of essential goods.
“If you are pinged, you should self-isolate. I know it poses challenges, and we are seeing reports of shortages which we are monitoring, but the rules are clear and I think they should be followed," UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told the BBC. He admitted that the government was concerned by the large numbers being pinged and unable to work and therefore plans to set out a list of exempt critical workers “very soon".
“The list of exemptions will be quite narrow because, obviously, you have to draw the line somewhere," he said. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said the app was doing “what it’s designed to do".
“We’re aware of the impact on some industries and services and working closely with them, particularly food and supermarkets we have a robust and resilient food supply chain," the spokesperson said. Self-isolation for all fully-vaccinated people pinged by the app as close contacts of a COVID positive individual is due to be scrapped by August 16, although there are calls for this deadline to be brought forward to avert the “pingdemic".
Businesses want an exemption where vaccinated people can resume work after a negative coronavirus test. The NHS COVID app was launched as part of several measures to control the spread of coronavirus within the community. It uses Bluetooth technology to alert a user if someone they were very close to in recent days went on to test positive for COVID-19 and gives them the date until when they must self-isolate.
Official data revealed that 618,903 alerts were sent between July 8 and15, a 17 per cent rise from the previous week, and there are growing fears that the distance sensitivity of the app is set too high and therefore the pings would only increase further as England’s legal lockdown restrictions ended on July 19. While downloads of the app continued to rise to 26,826,748 from 26,523,853 the previous week, many users are believed to have deleted the app to avoid being pinged.
Latest government figures show there are a further 44,104 daily coronavirus cases in the UK on Wednesday, with 73 coronavirus-related deaths.