Pandemic to pingdemic

Boris Johnson’s ‘Freedom Day’ did not exactly go as planned. In fact it was a fiasco. Despite that, Eddie Ford warns of an early general election

So we have had ‘Freedom Day’ - essentially the government radically rowing back on legal restrictions on what people can do in terms of social interaction. As a result, there are already signs that the social solidarity necessary to defeat the pandemic is beginning to break down.

On London transport services, for instance, the number of people wearing masks is noticeably down to about 60% or so - despite Sadiq Khan, the mayor, saying it was mandatory. Staff are not intervening, because understandably they do not want to get into a confrontation, which means that, if the transport authorities are letting people travel without a mask, those wearing one may feel resentful - especially as national rail and bus operators in the rest of England only “request” that passengers follow government guidance.

You have a similar story with several large supermarkets like Sainsbury’s and Tesco, which have followed the lead of Waterstone’s booksellers in strongly ‘encouraging’ their customers to wear face coverings. Yet a significant number ignore these messages, at times causing friction - whether with other mask-wearing customers or with staff unsure how to respond. Such tensions are being replicated across the country in all manner of venues and settings.

In fact, it is a peculiar transition period indeed - as exemplified by the new health secretary, Sajid Javid, who last week went down with Covid himself. He reminds us that being double-jabbed does not make you invulnerable. Rather, hopefully, being fully vaccinated means you will not have to be hospitalised and significantly reduces the likelihood that you will transmit the virus to others. Javid’s situation also highlights the risks posed to the 32% of adults and all children who have not had both inoculations - not to mention the three million over-50s who have not been vaccinated at all for one reason or another.

After the news about the health secretary, we had the glorious kerfuffle with Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak over self-isolation, since they had come into close contact with the health secretary in the previous 48 hours and thus got ‘pinged’. At first, they issued a brief statement saying that they do not need to self-isolate like the rest of us, because they were joining a pilot testing scheme that allows certain people to have daily rapid flow tests. Predictably, this generated outrage from both the press and the general public on social media - yet again one law for them and one law for us. Within hours, Johnson and Sunak had to do a screeching U-turn and announce they were going to self-isolate after all, in order to act as ‘role models’ for the nation.

Of course, the Johnson-Sunak fiasco feeds into the overall ‘pingdemic’ that, sector by sector, has brought chaos to schools and workplaces. Many thousands have been told to self-isolate after having been ‘pinged’, with the NHS and council services hit especially hard. More than 500,000 in England and Wales were told to self-isolate by the app in the week ending July 7 - up 46% on the week before. This is on top of the more than one million children in England who were out of school last week for Covid-19-related reasons. It is estimated that up to ten million people might get pinged up to mid-August when the self-isolation rules are meant to end, representing a virtual shutdown of the economy. You could call it an unintended lockdown.

Having said that, the constant threat of having to self-isolate is not some strange bug or glitch of the NHS app - which is working as intended. Rather, the ‘pingdemic’ is a totally foreseeable feature - or consequence - of the unlocking in England, coupled with the faster-spreading Delta variant. In that sense, complaining about a ‘pingdemic’ is like complaining about your smoke alarm going off because you have burnt the toast.


Unfortunately, it is now almost inevitable that the final phase of unlocking - or ‘freedom’ - will bring on 100,000 daily cases with about 1,000 hospitalisations, despite roughly half the UK being fully vaccinated. Neil Fergusson of Imperial College, or ‘Professor Lockdown’, warned on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show that we could get 200,000 cases a day with 2,000 hospitalisations - though he admitted: “That’s where the crystal ball starts to fail”.

Even though that 200,000 is an upper figure, it is quite conceivable that at this sort of rate the NHS could be overwhelmed - the old fear. Already, we have had a situation where various hospitals have been putting off operations. If that is the case now, it will certainly be the same in the weeks and months ahead, as the Delta variant is not expected to peak until late August/early September. However, there is also a lot of talk amongst medics - quite reasonably - that precisely because we have socially isolated over the last 16 months, we will be more vulnerable to the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, since general immunity will have waned. When it comes to new cases of Covid, we are back to levels last seen in January - on July 20 there were 46,558 with 96 deaths, meaning disgracefully that the UK has, for the moment at least, one of the highest daily new-case rates per million globally.

‘Freedom Day’ was billed as a Churchillian moment for Boris Johnson, having ‘overcome the enemy’ and ‘united the nation’. Instead it ended in self-isolation after an embarrassing U-turn. But it is unlikely to be a disaster in terms of a general election, even if the vaccine bounce comes to an end - after all, the government will definitely have the power to choose the date. Yes, we could see a boost for the Labour Party and Keir Starmer, as the vaccine bounce ends with anger over an autumn-winter NHS crisis. This has not happened yet, of course, and the Tories are still well ahead in the polls - actually increasing their lead by 2% over the last week.

When the worst of Covid is over and the economy enjoys a predictable sharp economic upswing - albeit perhaps only a short one - all it takes is for Boris Johnson to get engaged in yet another dispute with the European Union to produce the ideal conditions for calling a general election - perhaps in October next year, perhaps even in May.