Pingdemic: time to live with the virus?

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In the lead-up to Freedom Day, the government’s core message regarding our new approach to dealing with Covid-19 was very clear: we must learn to live with this virus in the same that we do with the flu, the norovirus, and the many endemic viruses that cause the common cold – by allowing individuals to evaluate their own level of risk and make decisions accordingly.

So far, however, the government’s approach has not come close to resembling this initially outlined approach. It has not even come close, for instance, to the approach that would be taken to a normal winter, such as the winter of 2018-2019. While it is the case that people are no longer legally required to wear face coverings or limit the number of people at their dinner parties, the fact that earlier this month 600,000 people were asked to self-isolate in a single week shows that normality has not been restored.

After all, how would you feel if you were asked to spend 10 days in self-isolation after coming into contact with someone who had fallen ill with the flu? You might, quite understandably, be outraged. Yet, this is what hundreds of thousands of people are being asked to do due to Covid-19, despite the government’s talk about “learn(ing) to live” with the virus.

The fact that earlier this month 600,000 people were asked to self-isolate in a single week shows that normality has not been restored.

The consequences of the so-called ‘pingdemic’, which takes its name from the NHS Covid-19 app’s contact tracing function that ‘pings’ close contacts of cases, have been unacceptable. Shelves have been left empty in many supermarkets, healthy doctors with a negative PCR result have been unable to treat their patients, and, of course, many have been separated from their loved ones (whether double-jabbed or not) because they could, theoretically, be carrying the virus.

Most frustratingly of all, however, the Government has arguably admitted – not through its words but through its actions – that a different approach to dealing with Covid-19 contacts is possible. When the Prime Minister and the Chancellor were asked to self-isolate after coming into contact with the infected Health Secretary Sajid Javid, it was decided that they would take part in a pilot scheme whereby they would avoid self-isolation by taking a lateral-flow test on a daily basis.

This scheme, known as ‘test to release’, is seemingly akin to the one that was offered to many of us in Durham during the local outbreak that we had in June. In a way, this discredits Sir Keir Starmer’s “one rule for them, another for the rest of us” narrative, since ordinary students were able to use the scheme even before the Prime Minister.

The Government is not yet fully committed to living with Covid-19 as we do with the flu.

However, the situation was nonetheless deeply frustrating, and caused outrage despite the Prime Minister’s quick U-turn. Why, any sensible person must ask, is it safe for the Prime Minister (and Durham students, for that matter) to avoid self-isolation and rely on daily testing instead, while the rest of the population are told that the responsible thing to do is to self-isolate regardless of whether they actually have Covid-19?

The good thing that has come out of the Johnson-Sunak debacle is the fact that the Government has been forced to extend the scheme to other workers in key sectors of the economy. This should help to ease the strain under which businesses have been put, with many of their workers forced to self-isolate. But it does- as ever- come with a caveat. Most organisations will have to apply to the government to get an exemption for each individual employee that they want to take part in the scheme- the potential for red-tape struggles seems endless.

The ‘pingdemic’ has shown a number of things. It has demonstrated the arguable absurdity of some of the existing Government guidelines as well as their potential to destabilise the country and the economy. It has reaffirmed the Government’s susceptibility to public and political pressure. And, most importantly of all, it has proven that the Government is not yet fully committed to living with Covid-19 as we do with the flu.

Image: citytransportinfo via Flickr

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