1. How is contact tracing done in the U.K.?
Some of it is conducted the old-fashioned way, by workers who interview those who test positive for the coronavirus, ask them about recent contacts and then contact those people. But it’s predominantly done via a National Health Service “Covid-19 app” that residents can download onto smartphones. If a user tests positive for the coronavirus and agrees to it, the app uses Bluetooth technology to identify other users who in previous days came close enough to the infected person for long enough to be at risk. The app then notifies those people and asks them to self-isolate for 10 days. Isolation is mandatory only in the case of the old-fashioned method, not with the app. In any case, it’s not required to download the app, and since the start of the “pingdemic,” thousands of users have deleted it to avoid having to risk isolation. There are reports that the app is overly sensitive, for example identifying neighbors as contacts through house walls. Another complaint is that users are asked to isolate even if they’re fully vaccinated. That rule is set to be lifted only on Aug. 16.
2. Why did the number of people notified hit a peak?
As of July 20, an estimated 1.73 million people in a country of 67 million were isolating. The peak was driven by a combination of rising infections and increased movement of people. The weekend before most restrictions were ended, the U.K. recorded the highest increase in infections anywhere in the world, with cases topping more than 50,000 per day. The delta variant makes up approximately 99% of all new cases there. Infections were actually higher in the U.K. in early January, but lockdown rules were still in place in many parts of the country, so those who tested positive then likely would have come into contact with fewer people. While England ended most of its Covid restrictions on July 19, various measures still remain in place elsewhere in the U.K. Scotland is on track to remove most restrictions by Aug. 9, most Covid rules will be lifted in Wales on Aug. 7 and Northern Ireland plans to remove restrictions July 26.
3. What are the consequences of so many people isolating?
British business is being significantly disrupted. Greene King, a large U.K. pub chain, said in the week before the end that 33 outlets had to close because of staff shortages. Retailers are reporting absences of as high as 20% in some areas. Business lobby groups say it’s difficult to make sense of the rules particularly amid conflicting advice from different government departments, for instance about whether it’s essential for people to heed the app’s guidance to isolate, and how businesses might get exemptions. Businesses are pushing for tweaks to the app to account for people’s vaccination status and for staff to be able to return to work after testing negative for the virus.
4. What does the government say?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who is himself isolating after being “pinged” following close contact with Health Minister Sajid Javid, who tested positive — said that while self-isolating is difficult, it is still an important tool for fighting Covid. He said the country must reopen “cautiously.” Key workers who are vaccinated can apply for exemptions, but the government is recommending the majority of workers still self-isolate if “pinged” even though there is no legal obligation to do so. On July 21, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins said the government is working on compiling a list of workers who’ll be exempt.
(Adds minister comment to question 4. An earlier version was corrected to show most restrictions ended July 19 in England, not the entire U.K.)