In spring of last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic was something new, test-and-trace was touted as one of the best weapons against the virus.
The idea was simple enough: with reliable COVID-19 testing in place, we can identify carriers, use geolocation data from their phones to identify who they’ve been in contact with, and prompt those people to self-isolate.
Tech-savvy South Korea and Singapore rolled out test-and-trace implementations in double-quick time, and the positive accounts they gave led the UK, France, Germany and others to develop their own systems. None has been an unqualified success.
On the other hand…
There’s the testing side of the enterprise, a heroic effort on the part of NHS staff and paramedics working under trying conditions on airfields and in parish halls. Then there’s the tracing side, provided by the app.
Over the short period since the end of lockdown, it has become apparent that the algorithms underpinning the NHS-T&T app are…well, oversensitive. Anecdotal evidence suggests that users are being advised to self-isolate after distant encounters where the probability of infection would have been near-zero.
More to the point, anything up to a million workers will soon have received the dreaded ‘ping’. In fact, so many are being told to stay home that industry leaders tell us parts of the economy are at risk of shutting down. The problem is particularly acute in sectors like retail, hospitality and manufacturing, where homeworking isn’t really an option.
Retail sector absences have been running at about 10%, but in local hotspots the percentage is often way higher. Such levels threaten the work of distribution centres and undermine the mail-order and home shopping operations which have kept the country going for the last year.
Manufacturers are suffering even more. Indeed, Nissan and Rolls-Royce are threatening to close factories because they can no longer keep their production lines fully staffed.
But it’s in the hospitality sector that the Pesky Ping is really causing problems. Britain’s bars and restaurants are by definition social environments, so the chance of being ‘pinged’ is higher for bar staff and waiters than it is for other groups. Up to 20% of the sector’s workforce is presently in isolation, according to trade body UK Hospitality, which warned that the number could rise to one in three within weeks…and the resulting wave of closures couldn’t come at a worse time for the UK’s newly-reopened pubs, bars and eateries.
There were reports last month that the government was planning to tweak the app’s algorithms to reduce its sensitivity, but they were quickly quoshed. The ‘Double Jab’ ruling which came into force on 16 August may turn out more significant, because it excuses those who have received two vaccine doses from self-isolation. Meanwhile, we’d like to point out that our LeavePlanner software will take some of the load off HR departments by helping staff to co-ordinate absences and leave-takings…voluntary or otherwise.