July 19 is meant to be England’s “freedom day”, when all remaining Covid-19 restrictions lift. It will feel like anything but for the more than half a million people who have been told to isolate after coming into proximity with someone who has tested positive for the virus. That includes Prime Minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak, close contacts of the new health secretary Sajid Javid who tested positive on Friday. An initial claim that they did not have to isolate, thanks to a pilot programme involving regular tests, was quickly reversed amid public anger.
The backlash at their apparent attempt to opt out of a system causing disruption to thousands reflects the depth of public frustration. The record number of people sent an alert by the NHS tracing app, coupled with carers of children whose classroom bubbles are isolating, has triggered labour shortages, supply-chain disorder and legal headaches for employers. Johnson’s government, in handing decision making to individuals, is abrogating responsibility without giving businesses the tools they desperately need to manage the resulting chaos.
The government, with one eye on libertarian backbenchers, regrettably stuck fast to its July 19 deadline, despite a Delta coronavirus variant that has ripped through the UK. Freedom would have been more credibly achieved had some restrictions remained until all adults are double vaccinated. On Friday, the UK tally of daily cases topped 50,000 for the first time since January. It should not be surprising that 530,126 people were “pinged” by the mobile app in the first week of July — a tenfold increase in a month — when one considers that 186,422 people tested positive that same week.
The government must provide clarity to companies over how to interpret such 10-day stay-at-home alerts, which are advisory rather than a legal obligation. Companies are fearful of breaking their duty of care to employees, as well as health and safety regulations, by telling them to ignore such alerts if they are feeling well and test negative.
Javid has conceded cases could reach 100,000 a day over the summer. Extrapolating, that could equate to 2m people pinged by the app each week. Currently, using Bluetooth technology, it alerts users who have been within two metres of someone known to have tested positive for coronavirus for more than 15 minutes. There are fears that it can even ping neighbours through walls. Already large numbers are deleting the app out of fear of receiving an alert.
Frustratingly, on August 16 new rules will mean those who have received two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine will not have to isolate for 10 days if they receive an alert; instead, they will have to take a PCR test. While this is a sensible and proportionate step, less logical is the decision to throw off all restrictions four weeks earlier.
Johnson’s government has been consistent only in its inconsistency around the so-called freedom day. Equivocation has become the defining characteristic of the government’s stance on key issues, from racism to “levelling-up” as well as pandemic policy. The muddle over mobile alerts echoes its mixed messaging over mask-wearing indoors, which also ceases to be a legal obligation on July 19. Instead, the government has shifted the onus on to the public, businesses and local authorities to make the “sensible” decisions. Throwing off rules with no regard to explaining clearly to businesses their new obligations is “cakeism” at its worst. “Freedom day” should not mean the government is free of responsibility.