LONDON – In scenes reminiscent of the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, supermarket shelves across England were looking a tad empty on Thursday.
Unlike last year, the depleted supplies did not reflect consumers stockpiling basic goods in anticipation of a lockdown. The issue resulted from workers, including grocery stockers and delivery drivers, getting “pinged” on their phones to self-isolate because of contact with someone infected with the coronavirus.
Grappling with staffing shortages amid the so-called “pingdemic,” many businesses, such as supermarket chain Iceland, have had to close some stores — something it didn't have to do at the height of England's three lockdowns during the pandemic.
Sandwich chain Pret A Manger said it has temporarily closed 17 shops due to employees being forced to self-isolate. Petroleum company BP also said it closed several sites temporarily because of a shortage of fuel partly, but not wholly, linked to a fuel distribution terminal being out of action for several days as a result of people self-isolating.
Hundreds of thousands of people, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, are having to self-isolate for 10 days after being informed by the National Health Service’s costly test and trace app that they have come into close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.
Figures from the NHS on Thursday showed a record 618,903 alerts were sent to users of the app in England and Wales in the week ending July 14.
Many critics say the app is being unfairly singled out and that the widespread pinging has more to do with a sharp increase in infections the U.K. is recording as a result of the spread of the more contagious delta variant and the lifting of lockdown restrictions.
The worry is that the sight of empty shelves may prompt consumers to start panic-buying again, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. Though retailers insist there is no need for customers to change their shopping habits, calls have grown for the government to radically change the isolation rules to limit the number of absentees and the ensuing impact on the economy.
The British Retail Consortium, for example, wants the government to exempt fully vaccinated workers, or those who test negative for the virus, from the requirements of a “ping.”
“What we are seeing is pockets of issues in specific places where case numbers are particularly high, and the most important thing is that the government acts now before the situation does get more serious, so we don’t see more empty shelves in more places,” British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson said.
Some modest changes were expected from the government later Thursday to allow a select few groups to be exempt from the self-isolation provided they take regular tests.
The app’s notification is advisory, and anyone “pinged” is not legally required to isolate, but Johnson's government has insisted that people follow the rules.
But many individuals and firms are starting to take matters in their own hands. There’s growing evidence pointing to people deleting the app. More than 26 million people downloaded the app in England and Wales, around half the adult population, since it launched last September.
Others, particularly in a hospital environment, are opting to turn off Bluetooth when they go into areas where they could potentially come into close proximity with someone who may have COVID-19.
Andrew Selley, the chief executive of Bidfood, a food distribution company, has told his delivery drivers to get tested and not to quarantine unless they test positive or are directly contacted by contact tracers.
Selley told BBC Radio that staff pinged by the app should take the gold-standard PCR test. If they tested negative, they should return to work where another daily testing regime is implemented by the company.
He defended his approach as “appropriate and safe.”
The executive's approach chimes with a change the government is expected to introduce on Aug. 16 that would exempt double-jabbed individuals from the self-isolation rules. That change comes nearly a month after most legal coronavirus rules in England were lifted. The other nations of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are being more cautious in lifting restrictions.
Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, agreed that changes were needed as soon as possible and stressed that “not all contacts are equal,” with clear differences between close family members and brief encounters with strangers.
“To my mind it is very clear from the available evidence that the current requirement to quarantine following being pinged because you are a casual contact has little if any value in controlling the epidemic in the U.K., especially if the person being pinged has been fully vaccinated or has recovered from a proven natural COVID infection," he said.
Without rapid changes to the rules governing the app, the pressures on essential services and food processing are set to get more acute. With daily infections expected to at least double 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.
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