‘United Pingdom:’ Firms in England fret over staff shortages

LONDON – Businesses in England warned Monday that a “pingdemic” of people receiving notifications on their phones telling them to self-isolate because of contact with coronavirus cases threatens to lead to widespread staff shortages and mayhem across the economy just as lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Though many businesses, notably nightclubs, have cheered Monday’s lifting of all remaining lockdown restrictions on social contact, they are increasingly grappling with staff shortages as the National Health Service’s test and trace app informs people to self-isolate for coming into close proximity with someone who has tested positive for the virus. Supermarket chain Iceland and pub owner Greene King are two firms that have had to close certain sites as a result of the self-isolation requirements.

There are also warnings of shortages of goods in supermarkets, cuts in production at factories and potential transport chaos, as illustrated by Saturday’s closure of the Metropolitan Line on the London Underground, due to key staff being pinged.

Mike Lynch, general secretary of The Rail, Maritime and Transport union warned that so-called “Freedom day” could “very easily collapse into chaos day.”

Hundreds of thousands of people are having to self-isolate for 10 days after being informed by the National Health Service’s test and trace app that they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus. More than 26 million people have downloaded the app in England and Wales.

Two of those self-isolating are Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Treasury chief Rishi Sunak, who were both pinged after coming into contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who subsequently tested positive for the virus. The pair initially tried on Sunday to get round the requirement to quarantine by saying they would join a daily workplace testing programme, before an outcry prompted a change of heart.

It’s clear where the numbers are going. More than 520,000 people were “pinged” in the week to July7 and told to self-isolate, a tenfold increase on the previous month. With daily infections rising sharply and set to at least double from current rates to 100,000 this summer, the number of people being pinged by the app will inevitably grow, potentially to more than 1 million a week.

That’s going to cause untold disruption to businesses trying to recover after 16 months of lockdown duress and many executives are calling on the British government to, at the very least, reform the self-isolation rules.

“We’ve been talking for a while internally about living in the ‘United Pingdom’ and it has become a huge challenge for individuals and businesses,” Humphrey Cobbold, chief executive of PureGym, told BBC radio.

“Up to 25%, in some areas, of our staff have been asked to self-isolate; we’ve been able, through flexibility and sharing of labour, to keep sites open so far but it has been a very close call in certain circumstances,” he added.

The Confederation of British Industry is urging the government to immediately exempt double-jabbed people from the self-isolation requirement rather than wait until Aug. 16 when the rules are set to be changed. It also wants those who have not had two doses to be offered a route out of their self-isolation via daily testing.

“With restrictions being lifted and cases rapidly increasing, we urgently need a sure-footed approach from government, creating confidence to secure the recovery,” the lobby group’s president, Karan Bilimoria, said. “Against the backdrop of crippling staff shortages, speed is of the essence.“

There’s anecdotal evidence to point to people taking matters into their own hands by deleting the app or at least turning off Bluetooth when they go into areas, such as hospitals or restaurants, where they could potentially come into close proximity with someone who may have COVID. Charlie Mullins, the founder of Pimlico Plumbers, has even recommended people delete the app.

One potential implication of the big spike in cases — for much of the spring, daily cases in the U.K. hovered around the 2,000 mark — is that it may overwhelm the whole effort to track contacts of those infected with the virus.

“I don’t imagine track and trace will function for much longer,” said James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute at from the University of Oxford “Neither it or the app were designed for 100,000 cases in a highly vaccinated population.”


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