The ‘pingdemic’: How UK's Covid-19 app has created a health headache

Over 600,000 people received a ‘ping’ this week to alert them that they had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive and they needed to self-isolate for 10 days. Such is the detrimental effect of the NHS app on people’s working life that many are choosing to deactivate it.

David Stupples has fallen victim to Britain’s current ‘pingdemic’. Stupples was walking around a marina a few weeks ago when a notification on his smartphone told him to isolate for 10 days because he had been in the vicinity of someone who tested positive for Covid-19.

“I had been careful to stay away from people, and there was no one around me... except maybe inside the boats,” this professor of electronic engineering at City University of London said.

Like him, hundreds of thousands of Britons have heard the dreaded ping notification from the official National Health Service (NHS) application since early July.

In the week of July 7-15 alone, more than half a million people were put into a 10-day enforced quarantine on the app's recommendations.

This epidemic of notifications has become a major issue in the British public debate. “I would like to apologise for the inconvenience caused by these notifications [...], but I would like to reiterate that isolation is a vital tool in defending against the spread of disease,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson on July 21, who was himself quarantined after being "pinged" by the app.

But pressure on the government to find a way out of the situation is mounting as more and more sectors of the economy are affected by the pandemic.

Several supermarket chains have announced in recent days that they have been forced to close shops across the country due to the high number of employee absences that have forced them to quarantine themselves. In some areas, up to 30 percent of staff in these supermarkets have been notified by the NHS, the Guardian reports. Road transport is also struggling to cope with this period of the pandemic. Nearly 90,000 lorry drivers are currently unavailable, meaning delays in deliveries to shops and petrol stations.

The NHS has warned that the app's notifications have caused a large number of absences among hospital staff. This has made it more difficult for patients to be seen, even as the number of patients increases due to the rapid spread of the Covid-19 Delta variant across the country.

The Confederation of British Industry, the UK's largest business organisation, said on July 22 that the pandemic is threatening economic recovery.

“The current approach to self-isolation is closing down the economy rather than opening it up,” said Tony Danker, CBI director general. “This is surely the opposite of what the government intended. Businesses have exhausted their contingency plans and are at risk of grinding to a halt in the next few weeks.”

The government says it has listened to the business community's calls. This week it relaxed the rules to allow employees in certain ‘critical’ sectors – health, road transport and retail – to avoid having to isolate themselves for 10 days in the event of a notification provided they have received both doses of the vaccine.