'Pingdemic': English businesses buckle under COVID isolation demands

FILE PHOTO: The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) contact tracing smartphone app of Britain's National Health Service (NHS) is displayed on an iPhone in this illustration photograph taken in Keele, Britain, September 24, 2020. REUTERS/Carl Recine/Illustration/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) - England's railways, supermarkets and pubs warned the government on Monday that a COVID tracing app, which has told hundreds of thousands of workers to isolate, was wrecking the recovery and pushing supply chains to the brink of collapse.

Cases of COVID-19 in the United Kingdom have hit around 50,000 a day in recent days, pushing workers to self-isolate for 10 days after they were identified as a contact of someone with the disease, a crisis dubbed 'Pingdemic'.

Alerts, or pings, sent out by the official app have caused huge disruption in schools, businesses and the healthcare system, just as the government lifts nearly all restrictions in England to help drive an economic recovery.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, finance minister Rishi Sunak and health minister Sajid Javid are all currently isolating. Some pubs have shut, supply chains are teetering and the car breakdown service AA warned of longer response times at call centres.

"The pingdemic is here and businesses need urgent change," Richard Walker, the managing director of supermarket chain Iceland, said on Twitter.

Britain's biggest rail operator, Govia Thameslink, said it may need to cancel some services in London and South East England. Retailer Marks & Spencer said it may have to reduce business hours.

"Where the industry will see the pain is in the supply chain, because logistics runs tight anyway to be efficient," Marks & Spencer CEO Steve Rowe said in a statement.

Pub operator Greene King said it had to temporarily close 33 pubs last week due to a lack of staff. British baker Warburtons said it was struggling to maintain local deliveries as more staff self-isolate, exacerbating a national driver shortage.

The so-called pingdemic has overshadowed Johnson's 'freedom day' on Monday which ended over a year of lockdown restrictions in England.

Firms have urged the government to introduce a system that would allow those who test negative for the virus to return to work or to make the official app less sensitive. But a spokesman for Johnson said no changes were planned.

A person familiar with the situation in the retail sector said just under 10% of staff were absent, although some retailers are seeing absence rates of around 30%.

A second source at one of Britain's biggest supermarkets, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said while absence rates were up, they remained manageable and below the peaks of last year when the pandemic was raging.

Some healthcare workers may be able to skip isolation and those who have been fully vaccinated will be exempt from isolation demands from Aug. 16.

Smaller businesses, however, are particularly alarmed.

"Having just one of my customers test positive will close my entire business for two weeks with no financial support," said Helen Williams, owner of Willow Bridal Boutique in north west England.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Young and David Milliken; Writing by Kate Holton; Editing by Joe Bavier)

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