A record 600,000 people were ordered to self-isolate by the NHS Covid-19 app in the week to July 14 as worker shortages caused by the latest wave of the pandemic in the UK threatened to disrupt food and fuel supplies.
The number of “pings” from the NHS Covid Test and Trace app telling people who have been in close contact with someone testing positive for coronavirus rose by about 17 per cent on the previous week’s total to 607,486 in England.
A further 11,417 contact-tracing alerts were sent in Wales, the latest figures released by the Department of Health revealed on Thursday. However, the rate of growth has slowed over the previous week, when the number of alerts jumped 46 per cent to more than 520,000.
During the same week ending July 14, daily Covid-19 cases in the UK rose by more than 60 per cent, reaching their highest point since mid-January.
British business leaders have become increasingly agitated about the impact of the “pingdemic” on staffing, which has exacerbated existing problems caused by Brexit and a shortage of lorry drivers.
On Thursday BP said it had closed a “handful of sites” due to a lack of unleaded petrol and diesel while the business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the government was “monitoring” the situation as supermarkets apologised for empty shelves.
“We are experiencing some fuel supply issues at some of our retail sites in the UK and unfortunately have therefore seen a handful of sites temporarily closed due to a lack of both unleaded and diesel grades,” BP said.
While the company said the “vast majority of these temporary issues” would be resolved within a day, it added that problems caused by UK driver shortages had been made worse by the closure last week of a distribution terminal due to Covid-19 isolations.
Responding to pictures of empty supermarket shelves on social media and the front pages of some of Britain’s newspapers on Thursday morning, Kwarteng said the government was “very concerned about some developments”.
“I know we are seeing shortages,” the minister told BBC Radio 4. “I’ve seen the pictures today.”
Business groups have called for the government to bring forward its plan to exempt all doubled-jabbed people from self-isolation from August 16, even if they are “pinged” by the NHS Test and Trace app and advised to self-isolate.
The government has announced exemptions for some sectors identified as critical, including health and transport. Kwarteng indicated that further details will be set out on Thursday afternoon.
The British Retail Consortium said the “pingdemic” was putting pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep aisles stocked, adding: “Government needs to act fast.”
Meanwhile, Iceland Foods said more than 1,000 workers, 3 per cent of its total UK staff, have been asked to self-isolate, after being pinged by the app, forcing it to reduce trading hours and shut stores.
It plans to recruit 2,000 additional staff to cover absences due to self-isolation. But Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland, told the BBC that the photographs of empty shelves were “isolated incidents” and warned the public against panic-buying.
Kwarteng insisted that the food shortages were “not a universal thing”.
“I don’t want people to get the impression that every shelf in every supermarket is bare. That’s not the case,” he said.
“But we are certainly concerned about incidents of shortages and looking at the supply chains of critical industries. We are reviewing that situation,” he added.
According to the health department the number of people using the NHS Test and Trace app to register at pubs, shops and other venues fell 10 per cent compared with the previous week. The fall suggests more people may have deactivated or deleted the app to avoid being put into isolation if they came close to someone who later tested positive for the virus.
A recent survey by YouGov suggested that one in 10 previous users of the app had deleted it, while one in five who still had the app installed had turned off its contact-tracing capabilities.
The app sends out a notification recommending self-isolation, after using a smartphone’s Bluetooth signals to anonymously detect when a user has spent time close to someone who subsequently tested positive for the virus. More than 4m such alerts have now been sent by the NHS Covid app in England and Wales since its launch last September.
Kwarteng insisted individuals should still quarantine if they are contacted through the system. “I would strongly recommend that they continue to do that,” he said.