UK

‘Ping’-demonium: Fears over Summer of Discontent

What was the 1978 Winter of Discontent? 

Rubbish piled high in the streets and rats ran around in Leicester Square as dustbin men and other public sector workers went on strike to support a pay rise demand.

Hospitals were in chaos because cleaners and other ancillary staff joined the most widespread withdrawal of labour since the General Strike of 1926.

Parts of the country were left without an ambulance service for 24 hours as the army was drafted in to provide a skeleton service.

Patients went untreated and even the dead were left unburied, as council grave-diggers took ‘industrial action’.

Jim Callaghan’s Labour government refused demands of increases of 30 per cent and more for public workers. 

The UK was today left fearing a Summer of Discontent with the NHS Covid app continuing to ‘ping’ swathes of the country into isolation, as weary Britons complained of fuel and food shortages, bin collection cancellations, railways delays, and scores of school and business closures.

Around 1.7million people are thought to be currently isolating at home after being notified by the app or contacted by Test & Trace, with the problem set to get much worse as cases keep rising.

More than a million pupils were out of the classroom last week, according to new Department of Education data, with 81,000 reporting a confirmed or suspected case of Covid and the rest self-isolating following a positive contact.

With the summer break just 48 hours away, parents are pulling their children out of classrooms to avoid having their staycations ruined, amid warnings from travel bosses that a lack of staff will leave holiday lets and attractions unable to open.

Staff shortages fuelled by self-isolating staff have seen green bin deliveries suspended in at least eight council areas, including Liverpool and Bristol, as shoppers took pictures of empty shelves and oil giant BP blamed petrol shortages at an M25 service station on the closure of a distribution centre.

Yet more schools, libraries, art galleries and hospitality venues today revealed fresh tales of woe, with one Bournemouth restaurant losing thousands of pounds after having to cancel 100 table covers when one chef received an app notification.

And in yet another economic blow, the pound plunged to its lowest level against the dollar for five months as investors fretted about a surge in infections that experts say will be exacerbated by Freedom Day. As of midday, one pound was worth 1.36 dollars – its lowest level since February.

There have been reports of empty shelves in supermarkets amid disruption to supply chains and huge numbers of staff off self-isolating

BP today highlighted 'fuel supply issues' at some garages, blaming 'industry-wide driver shortages' together with the closure of a distribution due to staff isolating

BP today highlighted ‘fuel supply issues’ at some garages, blaming ‘industry-wide driver shortages’ together with the closure of a distribution due to staff isolating

Stricken businesses face disaster amid wave of self-isolation 

The Long Eaton Art Room, a community art centre in Nottingham, has had to abandon drop-in sessions and only run pre-arranged workshops after being forced to close several times due to staff being pinged.

Explaining the decision, they wrote on Facebook: ‘Every time we get pinged by the app we need to close, we are aiming to avoid that as much as possible and feel that set workshops will help us.’

Long Eaton Art Room

Long Eaton Art Room

Shakespeare’s Coffee Shop in Skelmersdale, Lancashire, is closing for the week.

The management wrote on Facebook: ‘It is with great regret that we have had to close the coffee shop and library this week due to lots of staff isolating, after being informed by the COVID app. It’s ‘Freedom Day’ and everyone has to stay at home. The irony.’

MR Barbers in Ely will remain shut until July 24 while its barbers are self-isolating.

Karl Foster, Director of MR Barbers group, said that the Ely branch is one of three barbershops in the nation-wide chain affected by the ‘pingdemic’.

‘We have 10 barbers that would normally be serving around 750 clients over the 10-day isolation period,’ he told the Ely Standard. ‘That’s a lot of potentially unhappy customers and a lot of lost business.’

MR Barbers in Ely

MR Barbers in Ely

Mark Cribb, owner of the Urban Reef restaurant and bar in Bournemouth, said he was losing thousands of pounds a night after being forced to shut his seafront bar on Mondays and Tuesdays due to staff shortages.

‘The concern is that all of a sudden the pingdemic is going to take over,’ he told Channel 4 News.

‘In one of our restaurants last week we had over 100 people booked in on a Monday but one of our chefs got pinged so we had to phone all of them to cancel.

‘Usually on a lovely evening we’d take thousands of pounds but on a Monday and Tuesday night at the moment we have had to close because of the lack of staff.’

Urban Reef restaurant and bar in Bournemouth

Urban Reef restaurant and bar in Bournemouth

Tracy Standish, the owner of Bowl Central, a Bournemouth bowling venue, told Channel Four News: ‘We’ve got a supervisor isolating at the moment. Every day you are concerned to get the news that you are going to lose more vital members.

‘At the moment we are trading seven days a week at the moment but you are constantly under pressure. It is very stressful.’ 

Bowl Central in Bournemouth

Bowl Central in Bournemouth 

The Factory Tap, a real ale bar in Kendal, is having to close early at 10pm on Friday and 9pm on Saturday because of a shortage of staff having to self-isolate.

The venue wrote on Facebook: ‘We need 30% more staff to serve 75 per cent of our normal custom. Having staff isolate means we cannot operate and would have to close.

‘We have been closing earlier than normal 10pm Friday and Saturday 9pm for the rest of the week, we intend to continue this.

‘We close at these times for a very good reason, we are either understaffed and unable to provide the service required or are knackered and have just had enough!’ 

The Rose and Crown in Winlaton, Tyne and Wear, is closed until Friday ‘due to staff shortages following isolation procedures’. 

Rose and Crown

Rose and Crown 

Residents in Stockton-on-Tees will now only receive fortnightly general waste collections after 27 out of the council’s 77 binmen went into self-isolation, making weekly rounds ‘impossible’.

Green waste collections have been suspended in a series of other councils, including Stockton, Doncaster, Copeland, Liverpool, Bristol, Broxstowe and the New Forest.

BP today highlighted ‘fuel supply issues’ at some garages, blaming ‘industry-wide driver shortages’ together with the closure of a distribution centre due to staff isolating. 

Among the businesses announcing closures related to Covid self-isolation today include pubs, cafes, barbers, art galleries and shops in Cumbria, Dorset, Lancashire, Tyneside, Nottinghamshire and Cambridgeshire.

Mark Cribb, owner of the Urban Reef restaurant and bar in Bournemouth, said he was losing thousands of pounds a night after being forced to shut his seafront bar on Mondays and Tuesdays due to staff shortages.

‘The concern is that all of a sudden the pingdemic is going to take over,’ he told Channel 4 News.

‘In one of our restaurants last week we had over 100 people booked in on a Monday but one of our chefs got pinged so we had to phone all of them to cancel.

‘Usually on a lovely evening we’d take thousands of pounds but on a Monday and Tuesday night at the moment we have had to close because of the lack of staff.’

Kate Allen, owner of the luxury holiday lettings business Salcombe Finest, warned that with coastal hospitality businesses making up to 80% of their annual turnover in the next six week, failing to abolish the app would be a death blow to the industry.

‘It’s no surprise the app is being deleted in the hospitality industry faster than a U2 album on iTunes,’ she said.

‘Coastal hospitality businesses make between 70% and 80% of their annual turnover in the next six weeks during the school holidays. If the app isn’t abolished right now, our window of opportunity will be gone.’

It came as increasing numbers of parents are planning to pull their children out of school early to reduce the risk of having to cancel their plans, with 20% not ruling out removing their children from school before the school break to ensure they did not catch Covid or be asked to self-isolate. 

The survey app Parent Ping asked its users if they would consider taking their children out of school early to avoid being asked to self-isolate by the Covid app or contacted by NHS Test & Trace.

The app, which surveys thousands of parents each day, found 20% would not ruling out removing their children from school before the summer break to ensure they did not catch Covid or be asked to self-isolate.

Some 1% of parents said they would ‘definitely’ take their children out of school early, 5% said ‘maybe’ and 15% said they probably would not do so but weren’t sure.

The Road Haulage Association estimates there is now a shortage of 100,000 lorry drivers in the UK. Thousands of prospective drivers are waiting for their HGV tests due to a backlog caused by lockdown, while many existing drivers have left the UK after Brexit. 

The shortage has been exacerbated by Covid, which means many are currently having to self-isolate. 

Other industries were also experiencing disruption today, with West Midlands Railway warning of cancellations due to staff shortages. 

Some parts of the country are not receiving regular letter deliveries due to postmen and postwomen self-isolating, reported The Times, with customers reporting no mail for up to a week.

Nationwide Produce, one of the Britain’s biggest growers and distributors of fresh fruit and vegetables, said good food was rotting in stores while it awaited transport, while Tesco last month admitted that 48 tons of food across its supply chain was being binned a week.

Shoppers have been posting images of empty shelves in some supermarkets, as the government announced it would excuse some HGV drivers from self-isolating to relieve the shortage and announced a recruitment drive.   

The government initially appeared to soften its line on self-isolation today, with a minister today suggesting it was fine for people to ignore the app if they think it is the ‘right thing’ to do.

Paul Scully struck a starkly different tone from Boris Johnson’s press briefing last night, when the PM insisted that self-isolation rules must stay in place to control soaring infections.

The business minister stressed that obeying the app was not a legal requirement, and people were being encouraged to ‘make decisions on what’s best for them’.

No10 quickly tried to slap down Mr Scully, insisting it is ‘crucial’ people isolate when told to do so by the app or by contact tracers.

But the intervention will fuel mounting confusion about how the public should behave as rising cases spark a wave of quarantine instructions. Businesses have warned they are being forced to limit hours or shut down as so many staff are absent, while there have been reports of empty supermarket shelves, overflowing bins and trains being delayed or cancelled.

However, the PM dismissed calls to make the app less sensitive or bring forward a daily testing scheme for the fully vaccinated, due to come into force from August 16.

Instead there are only exemptions for very limited groups of key workers, including some frontline NHS staff and parts of the food chain. 

Mr Scully told Times Radio: ‘It’s important to understand the rules. You have to legally isolate if you are on the… contacted by Test and Trace, or if you’re trying to claim isolation payments.

‘The app is there to give… to allow you to make informed decisions. And I think by backing out of mandating a lot of things, we’re encouraging people to really get the data in their own hands to be able to make decisions on what’s best for them, whether they’re employer or an employee.’ 

Infections are currently running at about 45,000 a day (yellow line shows cases increasing since May) but deaths are still flat at about 40 a day (pink line shows fatalities in the third wave). For comparison, the last time cases hit this level when the second wave began to spiral out of control (orange line) there were more than 600 daily deaths

Infections are currently running at about 45,000 a day (yellow line shows cases increasing since May) but deaths are still flat at about 40 a day (pink line shows fatalities in the third wave). For comparison, the last time cases hit this level when the second wave began to spiral out of control (orange line) there were more than 600 daily deaths

Shoppers have been posting images of empty shelves in some supermarkets, as the government announced it would excuse some HGV drivers from self-isolating to relieve the shortage and announced a recruitment drive

Shoppers have been posting images of empty shelves in some supermarkets, as the government announced it would excuse some HGV drivers from self-isolating to relieve the shortage and announced a recruitment drive 

Asked whether this meant people should or should not self-isolate if ‘pinged’, he said: ‘We want to encourage people to still use the app to be able to do the right thing, because we estimate it saves around 8,000 lives.’

However, he added that it was ‘up to individuals and employers’.

A No 10 spokeswoman said: ‘Isolation remains the most important action people can take to stop the spread of the virus.

‘Given the risk of having and spreading the virus when people have been in contact with someone with Covid it is crucial people isolate when they are told to do so, either by NHS Test and Trace or by the NHS Covid app.

‘Businesses should be supporting employees to isolate, they should not be encouraging them to break isolation.’

Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: ‘The Government making it up as they go along.

‘Ministers mix messages, change approach and water down proposals when the public and businesses need clarity and certainty.

‘If this is a true change in approach on the app, why didn’t the Prime Minister set this out last night?

‘Yet again there is more confusion and incompetence from the heart of government at the expense of public health. They need to get a grip.’

Kate Allen, owner of the luxury holiday lettings business Salcombe Finest, warned that the 'pingdemic' risks ruining staycations. Pictured is a street in Salcombe

Kate Allen, owner of the luxury holiday lettings business Salcombe Finest, warned that the ‘pingdemic’ risks ruining staycations. Pictured is a street in Salcombe

Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery, who chaired the ethics advisory board for the NHS on its contact tracing app, told Times Radio the Government needed to give clearer guidance to people about what to do when told to self-isolate.

‘When we had no protection the risk was the same for everybody. If that risk is now reduced because someone is double-vaccinated it feels as though we need more sophisticated advice,’ Sir Jonathan said.

‘If we are visiting an elderly relative or a cancer patient then take the ping seriously but if you are doing something relatively Covid-friendly then maybe make a different decision.’

Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies which advises ministers said: ‘Contact tracing and self-isolation play an important role in stopping cases getting out of control and preventing deaths.

‘It’s important we maintain these measures as stringently as we can.

‘We have one of the highest rates of cases in the world right now.

‘The NHS has been under strain for a long time and they are busy trying to catch up on operations and are very, very busy.

‘So to put them under more pressure now is going to be awkward.’

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister was facing a backlash over his plans to make coronavirus vaccination compulsory for nightclubs and other crowded venues in the autumn.

Clubs, backbench Tories and opposition MPs criticised Boris Johnson’s announcement on Monday – the day that clubs in England were allowed to open for the first time since March last year.

Night Time Industries Association chief executive Michael Kill accused the Government of ‘an absolute shambles’.

’80 per cent of nightclubs have said they do not want to implement Covid passports, worrying about difficulties with enforcing the system and a reduction in spontaneous consumers, as well as being put at a competitive disadvantage with pubs and bars that aren’t subject to the same restrictions and yet provide similar environments.’

Lister Primary School in Bradford was forced to close today due to staff and pupils self-isolating

Lister Primary School in Bradford was forced to close today due to staff and pupils self-isolating 

Mark Harper, the Conservative former chief whip who chairs the Covid Recovery Group of Tory lockdown-sceptics, criticised the plans as ‘effectively moving to compulsory vaccination’.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative chairman of the Health and Social Care Committee, questioned why the Government was delaying the plans until the autumn.

Labour’s shadow health minister Justin Madders said: ‘How can it be safe to go to nightclubs now, with no protective measures, if in September it will require double jab status? It makes no sense.’

Mr Scully, the minister for small business, said the policy would not be introduced until the detail is right.

He suggested that pubs would not be included, with the use of the vaccine passports aimed at nightclubs and ‘larger ticketed events’.

‘There are a number of sporting venues that are already looking at voluntarily doing this,’ he told Sky News

Mr Scully admitted to having reservations about the plan: ‘I’m not comfortable that Government is mandating anything frankly, I’m a very libertarian Conservative, I want to be able to back off, that’s why yesterday was an opportunity for Government to back off from so many different things and let people live their lives.

‘But what we have to do is make sure that people will also live their lives safely, the NHS can function safely, and these are the challenges that we still have to do.

‘So it’s incredibly frustrating, it’s incredibly complicated to work through the detail, but that’s the challenge we have.’


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