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The pingdemic
Sensemaker audio

The pingdemic

The pingdemic

As Covid infections in the UK multiply, the NHS app is pinging hundreds of thousands of people to tell them to self-isolate. Businesses are wondering how they can cope.


Claudia Williams: Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker.

One story, every day to make sense of the world.

Today: the pinging hell faced by businesses and how the government changed self-isolation rules, but only for some.


[Clip: You can’t stop the beat, Hairspray]

“Hairspray the Musical” is known for its catchy song “you can’t stop the beat” and when the musical opened its doors again at the end of June they were right. Rave reviews and a full house every night.

Until a few weeks ago when, it turned out, actually, you could stop the beat. Or at least, Covid could.

[Clip: pings]

“Hi folks, the good news is the NHS test and trace is working ever more efficiently…”

Boris Johnson speaking from self-isolation, November 2020

That’s Boris Johnson back in November 2020.

“The bad news is they’ve pinged me and I’ve got to self-isolate.”

Boris Johnson speaking from self-isolation, November 2020

And like Boris Johnson, now more than half a year on, the cast of Hairspray got that dreaded ping too.

“I’m fine, I’ve been pinged. I’m self-isolating.”

Michael Ball, cast member of Hairspray the musical

That’s Michael Ball, he plays one of the main characters in the musical.

“Climbing the walls… we opened on Tuesday, rave reviews, full house…”

Michael Ball, cast member of Hairspray the musical

Earlier this month he had to self-isolate because of coming into contact with a Covid case on set. Now you’d think Hairspray would have back ups for their cast members and they did. But Michael Ball’s understudy and his understudy’s understudy all got “pinged” too.

“We’re in this bizarre situation where we can have a full theatre but an empty stage because of the strict rule about pinging and isolating…”

Michael Ball, cast member of Hairspray the musical

Even getting a full theatre might be a struggle. 

Just last week the Covid-19 app sent 520,000 “pings” or alerts in England asking people to stay at home and self-isolate because they came into contact with someone who tested positive for Covid. 

That’s up 46% on the previous week. 

“Yes now have you been pinged by the NHS app? If not it’s very plausible you know someone who has…”

BBC Newsnight

And as the Delta variant continues to rip through the country more and more people are going to test positive for Covid, which means one thing: more pings.  

But for businesses across the UK, orders to stay at home are causing havoc. Staff shortages have halted production lines, hospitals have had to postpone elective surgery, trains and tube services have been cancelled, and hundreds of restaurants and pubs are having to shut their doors. 

And so on Monday, the government announced a change to self-isolation rules if people get pinged.  

“I want to assure you that we will protect crucial services… by making sure that a small number, a very small number, of named, fully vaccinated critical workers, are able to leave their isolation solely for the work that I’ve just described.”

Boris Johnson speaking at a press conference on ‘Freedom Day’

Some key workers like NHS staff, carers and train drivers, will now just have to get tested when they get pinged and if they get the all-clear, they can go back to work. 

But for most businesses the plan to take a test rather than isolate doesn’t kick in until the 16th of August, four long weeks away. And predictions suggest more than four and a half million people could be “pinged” by then. 

We’re heading for a summer of chaos. So the question is: can the show still go on? 


Some people had taken to calling this Monday “Freedom Day”. And in many ways, Boris Johnson was hoping it was the moment to relaunch the post-pandemic economy.

You can go to a nightclub, a sports stadium, or even see Michael Ball in Hairspray with no social distancing required. And all of this was meant to boost the economy, create jobs again and get consumers spending. 

But the reality is looking very different from what Boris Johnson had hoped. 

Some things are opening up. But a lot are closing down.

“I think with the number of cases that we have now and the apps’ pings that are happening, and self-isolation is required, it’s making it almost impossible to carry on just because of the sheer number that’s happened.”

Stuart Turner, Director of People, English National Opera

Supermarkets are warning of empty shelves, Marks & Spencer have said they may have to reduce opening hours, and Iceland’s boss has had to close stores all together. 

London’s Metropolitan underground line was suspended over the weekend because of staff having to isolate and there could be up to 60 percent of security positions left unfilled when nightclubs and festivals reopen. 

Business leaders say they can’t go on like this for four more weeks.  

So, how is the government responding? 


“What we want to do is just keep going for a little bit longer so that we can get even more vaccinations into people’s arms… give ourselves even more protection.”

Boris Johnson, July 2021

The government is still standing by its position that isolation is one of the best ways to help break the spread of the virus but workers who are double jabbed and still having to isolate well, they’re beginning to ask what’s the point. 

And there’s more confusion in all of this too. There’s a difference between getting called by track and trace and just getting “pinged” by the app.

If you get a call (or in most cases, you’ll get several calls), you are legally required to stay at home and isolate. If you just get “pinged”, you are only advised to isolate. 

And that’s why some business leaders are telling their workers to ignore a ping, or delete the app all together. 

But the problem is, even if you are double jabbed like health secretary Sajid Javid is, you can still catch Covid. And that’s why this new testing scheme will be so important when it becomes mainstream in August. 

And so at the moment, it looks like the government won’t budge on changing self-isolation rules for everyone else. For Michael Ball and Hairspray, the beat will go on until it’s interrupted by the next ping.  

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.

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