Covid-19: ‘Pingdemic’ turns NI traders off contact-tracing app

Hair salons and restaurants hit by surge in self-isolate notifications from StopCOVID app

The NHS contact-tracing app on a mobile phone in London. The North’s Federation of Small Businesses wants the Stormont Executive to follow England’s lead and introduce exemptions for workers in critical sectors allowing them to take daily tests rather than having to self-isolate. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

The NHS contact-tracing app on a mobile phone in London. The North’s Federation of Small Businesses wants the Stormont Executive to follow England’s lead and introduce exemptions for workers in critical sectors allowing them to take daily tests rather than having to self-isolate. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

 

Traders in Northern Ireland are turning off a Covid-19 contact-tracing app because of a surge in the numbers being “pinged” and told to self-isolate after coming into close contact with a confirmed case of the disease.

Roger Pollen, head of external affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses, said hospitality and close-contact services – such as beauty salons and hairdressers – had been hit hard by notifications from the StopCOVID NI app.

The so-called “pingdemic” is said to be forcing temporary closures amid staff shortages as alerted contacts are expected to isolate for 10 days, with restaurants, cafés and bars being affected in particular.

Defending the decision to turn off the app in workplaces, Mr Pollen said businesses were using other means to mitigate against infection and that “they believe they are operating their premises and businesses very safely”.

“So even if they have a customer who is infected, they have good reason to believe they won’t themselves become infected,” he said. “On that basis they are turning off their devices while in the workplace.”

Figures obtained from the North’s Department of Health show an almost doubling – from 200 to 388 – of the numbers who informed the app they had tested positive between the first and second weeks of July. However, the number of users notified that they were a close contact increased by only 40 per cent in that period, from 636 to 886.

‘Red flag’

Mr Pollen said the figures were a “red flag” that users were turning the app off but insisted that businesses were “not being cavalier” and were “keeping up their guard”.

The federation wants the Stormont Executive to follow England’s lead and introduce exemptions for workers in critical sectors allowing them to take daily tests rather than having to self-isolate.

Major supermarkets in the North are warning the “pingdemic” is putting pressure on supplies.

Aodhán Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, which represents the likes of Lidl, Asda and Sainsburys, said the problem was “not as bad as England yet but the powers-that-be need to move on it”. The consortium wants fully vaccinated people to be exempt from the 10-day isolation period.

“There is pressure on supply chains, on suppliers and on some retailers,” he said. “We are not at a crisis point yet, but there is a need to move and get ahead of it over the next week or so.”

Mr Connolly added: “If we don’t have people to put food on shelves or move the stock, then of course there will be challenges. It all depends on how the next week or so goes as far as the virus itself, and that is anybody’s guess.”