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19 July 2021

The “pingdemic” is a symptom of the UK’s problems, not the cause

The constant threat of being asked to self-isolate is an inevitable consequence of the government’s approach to Covid-19.  

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson will spend “Freedom Day” in isolation after Downing Street first announced, then abandoned, plans to allow the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to participate in a “test and release” trial. The trial would have meant that they avoided their ten days of self-isolation ( which was triggered because they have had direct contact with the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, who has tested positive for Covid-19).  

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

The row has helped create a further tranche of headlines in the conservative papers about the so-called “pingdemic”, as more and more people are asked to self-isolate. Now, it’s true to say that a summer of stop-start self-isolations is potentially disastrous for most businesses, from restaurants to supermarkets to theatres. The England cricket team might be able to put out a second winning side after being forced to go into isolation, but most businesses can’t. If you run a restaurant and your staff are in self-isolation, you are simply losing trade (and while the Treasury’s economic support package helps with your staff and premises costs, it doesn’t help with the cost of perishable goods). If you are running a theatre and your cast are in self-isolation, ditto.  

[See also: Why the UK’s new Covid-19 strategy is uniquely dangerous]

There’s an important “but” here, too, which is that amid all the talk of a “pingdemic”, it’s easy to forget that the constant threat of being asked to self-isolate by the NHS app isn’t a glitch in the system or some strange oversight. It’s a feature, not a bug, of England unlocking, and this, coupled with the faster-spreading Delta variant, means a new wave of coronavirus cases. Complaining about a “pingdemic” is a bit like complaining that your fire alarm has gone off because you’ve burnt something on the hob: yes, it’s a pain, but the problem isn’t the fire alarm. 

[See also: Boris Johnson needs to be honest: “living with Covid” does not mean normality]