The Pingdemic: should the government ease restrictions?

July 30, 2021, 10:45 AM UTC

The latest official figures show that a record number of people in England and Wales were ‘pinged’ by the government’s Test and Trace system, telling them that they had been in ‘close contact’ with someone who had tested positive for Covid. In the week to 21 July there were 690,000 such alerts, up 70,000 on the previous week. People who get pinged are supposed to isolate for ten days. The potential chaos this could cause to the economy has already led the government to create exemptions but it’s now being argued that people who are already doubly vaccinated and get pinged should also be exempt from isolation sooner than the government is planning. Should they? And how confident are you that the government is on top of the pandemic now that most legal restrictions have been lifted?

‘Freedom Day’ on 19 July was freedom only up to a point. Although most legal controls were abandoned there was one continuing restriction that immediately caused controversy. It was that until 16 August, four weeks after Freedom Day, anyone who got pinged for having been in close contact with someone who had tested positive should isolate for ten days. Business leaders immediately predicted mayhem. What they could see ahead of them was chaos: the lifting of legal restrictions on 19 July would lead to an upsurge in people testing positive, so more people getting pinged for having been in contact with them, and so more of their employees calling in saying they couldn’t come to work because they had been forced into isolation. Supermarket shelves would be empty and the country would grind to a halt.

The government responded by making exemptions for ‘key workers’ who, instead of having to isolate after being pinged, could get themselves tested and, once they had been given the all-clear, they could go back to work. The government promised urgently to set up 2,000 new testing sites around the country to provide this service.

But who is a key worker? The government kept adding to the list as different parts of the economy started to plead for exemption. This week prison officers and tax office staff were given the exempt status. But setting up the new testing sites hasn’t kept up with the original timetable or the increased demand for their services. This week only 13% of the original 2,000 target for new testing sites were up and running.

There was a further problem with the original plan. The government’s single greatest success in tackling the pandemic has been the vaccination programme which has now seen 88.4% of the adult population have one jab and over 70% have both jabs. Why, it’s asked, should people who have been doubly jabbed have to wait until 16 August to avoid going into isolation if they get pinged? The likelihood is that they won’t have contracted the virus since they have been fully vaccinated, so the obvious procedure should be for them, like key workers, to be tested to give them the all-clear (or not) rather than have to isolate.

The Scottish government has decided that this way of doing things will begin on 9 August, and the Welsh government has set the date for 7 August, the date Labour is advocating for England. But the former health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, goes further, arguing that the change should be made now, so that those doubly-vaccinated people who get pinged should isolate only until they have taken a PCR test showing them to be negative. He argues that by persisting with the ten-day isolation rule for doubly-vaccinated people, the government ‘risks losing social consent’.

There are already signs that this is happening to some extent. It is estimated that a million or more people have deleted the test-and-trace app from their phones simply so that they won’t get pinged.

So far, though, the government is resisting this pressure to bring forward or abandon altogether the 16 August date for isolation. It says it is a necessary precautionary measure. Ever since the removal of most legal restrictions it has urged caution, saying that the pandemic has certainly not gone away and predicting a further hike in new cases over the summer. This pessimistic caution appeared to be contradicted by the data that appeared in the week after Freedom Day. For seven days the number of new cases kept falling. Even the experts were baffled, some suggesting that it was maybe due to a lull in social activity following the end of the Euros football competition. But these good figures were not expected to keep going since it was known that there is a roughly ten day delay between the easing of restrictions and the likely increase in cases. And, sure enough, ten days after 19 July the number of new cases has started to rise again.

This precautionary approach, however, does not persuade those who think the case for isolating doubly-vaccinated people who get pinged stands up. And they point out the other ‘risks’ the government is prepared to take. They cite, for example, the fact that the government decided this week that, from next Monday, visitors from the United States and most EU countries who are doubly-vaccinated should no longer have to quarantine when they arrive here. That’s potentially millions of summer visitors who will be able to roam the country even if, probably unknown to themselves, they have been in close contact with someone who is positive. Where’s the logic in all this, ask the critics.

So should the government abandon isolation for the doubly-vaccinated or not? And, more generally, how confident are you that the government is on top of the process of easing restrictions and getting us all to learn how to ‘live with Covid’?

Let us know your views.