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Fresh warnings that ‘pingdemic’ will create surge of isolating workers - UK

A notification issued by the NHS coronavirus contact tracing app - informing a person of the need to self-isolate immediately, due to having been in close contact with someone who has coronavirus - is displayed on a mobile phone in London, during the easing of lockdown restrictions in England.

By Sam Blewett and Patrick Daly, PA Political Staff

Fresh calls have been issued to prevent a “surge” in workers and medics being forced into self-isolation over coronavirus contacts when most restrictions end on Monday.

Medics are among the critics calling on the Government to rethink the month-long delay between so-called “freedom day” and the quarantine rules being eased for the double-jabbed.

Transport unions said there will be “dire consequences” next week when staff are “pinged” with instructions to self-isolate over close contacts as the level of infections rise.

Employers have warned of a looming staffing crisis, which could compound pressure on the NHS with some staff already having been asked to put holidays on hold due to the rising number of patients.

Ministers are examining whether to make the NHS app less sensitive, with 530,126 alerts having been sent in England and Wales during the first week of July.

Amid warnings of a “pingdemic”, fully-vaccinated individuals will be exempt from having to quarantine over close contacts but this change will not be introduced until August 16.

England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty has warned that the number of people being treated in hospital with Covid-19 could reach “quite scary” levels within weeks.

The Royal College of Anaesthetists and the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine issued a joint call to exempt double-jabbed NHS staff from isolation over close contacts.

“The risk of patients contracting Covid from vaccinated healthcare staff is minimal compared to the damage that patients could suffer by having their treatment delayed,” a statement said.

“Without this exemption in place, the NHS will not be able to address the waiting lists. We encourage the Government to not wait until August to free vaccinated healthcare workers from the isolation rules – we need this to happen now.”

Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said the hospital trusts the organisation represents are increasingly concerned over dealing with the care backlog “with large numbers of staff unable to work”.

“We know that national leaders are working hard to find a solution to this problem. The key is that this solution is delivered as a matter of urgency,” he added.

Health bosses in Sunderland have asked staff to consider postponing holidays to help the trust as it comes under “extreme pressure” due to a surge in coronavirus cases.

Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) general secretary Mick Lynch warned that Monday “will see a surge in workers pinged with a self-isolation instruction next week”.

“Even at this late stage, the Government, the train operators and the bus companies should issue a clear, legally backed instruction that levels up the rest of the UK to the safety standards that will remain in force in Wales and Scotland,” he added.

For the Government, Solicitor General Lucy Frazer said the “significant impact” on businesses caused by the app is being recognised.

“In addition to the changes in mid-August, the Government is also carrying out a number of pilots to see whether instead of isolating when you get pinged, you could take a test,” she told Sky News.

“The Government is looking at this very carefully, recognising the significant impact this is having on businesses.”

Pubs and restaurants were also issuing warnings over possibly having to close their doors due to the level of pings.

UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nichols said the industry is facing “significant staffing challenges” with up to as many as a fifth of staff isolating at any one time.

“Without better intervention, operators will continue to be forced to reduce their operating hours or to close venues completely, missing the opportunity to begin on their road to recovery,” she said.

“We urge the Government to move quicker on this issue to prevent the summer being cancelled and vast swathes of the population unnecessarily confined to their homes.”

Punch Taverns founder Hugh Osmond called for those pinged on the NHS Covid-19 app to be allowed to go back to work if they get a PCR test that returns negative.

“It is absolutely chaos, and clearly the app really isn’t fit for purpose because people are getting pinged all over the place and the vast majority do not ever test positive, let alone be ill,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.

Sir Jonathan Montgomery, the former chair of the ethics advisory board for the NHS Test and Trace app, said he would change the “consequences of being pinged”.

“When the app was designed, we didn’t have the ability to reliable home test, we didn’t have very many people jabbed, and the big worrying thing about this virus is that you can pass it on before you know you have it,” the professor of healthcare law at University College London told LBC.

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