The Daily Telegraph

We could have been spared pain of pingdemic

Culture of absenteeis­m it created is still something the UK is still struggling with three years later

- By Matthew Lynn

‘To make a bad situation even worse, the pingdemic meant crippling staff shortages’

‘Isolation hit the productive heartlands hardest. And the smaller the business, the more it suffered’

IT WAS, for several months at least, the most dreaded sound in any factory, warehouse, shop or cafe. Ping. The NHS app notifying a colleague they had been in contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19.

In a flash, workers would depart, and schedules would have to be hastily reorganise­d. For months, businesses were barely able to operate normally, output collapsed, and a culture of absenteeis­m was created that the UK is still struggling with three years later.

And yet, it now appears the isolation rules were for some time far stricter than they needed to be. The “pingdemic” may have been unnecessar­y – and so too may the damage to businesses that it caused.

Isolation has always been one of the oldest ways of coping with a pandemic, and one of the most effective as well.

Isolate everyone who comes into contact with the virus until it has passed and you can kill it off. There was nothing wrong with the basic theory.

The trouble is, as the Lockdown Files in this newspaper now reveal, it was imposed with a strictness not always justified by the actual evidence.

In November 2020, during the second lockdown, the CMO advised first that 14 days of isolation was only marginally safer than 10 days, and then that even that could be replaced with five days of daily testing. It was rejected by Matt Hancock, the then health secretary.

In fairness, tweaks to the rules were made. In mid-december 2020, the 14-day rule was cut to 10. Then in August 2021, after the pingdemic reached its height, the isolation rule was lifted if you were under 18 or fully vaccinated.

The important point is this, however. For a long stretch of 2021 we may not have needed such rigid isolation for contacts of those with Covid. And yet at that time it was already clear isolation was having a devastatin­g impact on the economy.

It was hard enough for anyone to operate any kind of a business during the chaos of lockdown, with its bewilderin­g mess of constantly changing rules on what you could and couldn’t sell, to whom, and under what conditions.

To make a bad situation even worse, however, the pingdemic meant any kind of commercial operation was constantly crippled by staff shortages.

Looking back at the news stories from the time, businesses were pleading for something to be done. Simon Thomas, the boss of London’s Hippodrome casino, called on the Prime Minister to end “the pingdemic hell”. Ross Morgan, the chief executive of the Heart of London Business Alliance, argued in 2021 that ending the restrictio­ns would provide “a lifeline to central London’s businesses, many of which are now being forced to shut or scale back their operations”.

A report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research estimated that a 25 per cent absenteeis­m rate in many industries would cost the UK as £35billion in lost output over two months alone.

“The current approach to selfisolat­ion is closing down the economy rather than opening it up,” argued Tony Danker, the director-general of the CBI in July 2021.

“This is surely the opposite of what the Government intended. Businesses have exhausted their contingenc­y plans and are at risk of grinding to a halt in the next few weeks.”

And, according to Michelle Ovens, the founder of Small Business Britain, staff shortages caused by the pingdemic were “simply unacceptab­le for many business owners”.

The list goes on and on. Companies right across the country were complainin­g about the isolation rules. It may not have made much difference to white collar workers, with whom ministers and their senior advisers mostly mix. Bankers, accountant­s, lawyers and consultant­s could work from home while they were isolating.

But you cannot drive a fork-lift truck, or operate a lathe, or serve a cappuccino, over Zoom.

Likewise, very big companies could shift staff around so their most crucial operations could keep going. Small companies didn’t have that option, and with 20 per cent or more of employees pinged, often had no choice but to close down completely.

Isolation hit the productive heartlands of the economy hardest of all. And the smaller the business, the more it suffered. If you wanted to come up with the perfect formula for inflicting maximum damage on the UK’S ability to earn a living, the 14-day, and even 10-day, isolation rule would be hard to improve on.

It had dire economic consequenc­es. First, the UK lost a huge amount of output. The near 10 per cent drop in GDP during the pandemic was the worst in British economic history. How much of that was accounted for by over-zealous interpreta­tion of the isolation guidelines we will never know for certain. But even if it was only a couple of percentage points that could have been saved, that would have made a huge difference to the final cost of Covid-19.

Next, it created a culture of absenteeis­m. If you wanted a few days off work, there was never an easier time. Report you had been pinged and few questions would ever be asked.

That has carried on, even after the virus has disappeare­d.

The Office for National Statistics reports days off for sickness are running at the highest level for more than a decade, while a survey by Fruitful Research found a 29 per cent increase in absenteeis­m.

Finally, we have been left with a legacy of debt. Companies had to borrow money or dip into reserves, while the Government was forced to borrow far more to deal with higher costs and lower tax revenues. It will take generation­s to pay all that back.

It might have seemed easier at the time to err on the side of caution and to impose the strictest rules imaginable. After all, what difference does a few extra days of isolation make?

Looking back, however, we can now see how flawed that reasoning was. We could have cut the time much earlier than we did – and saved the economy a huge amount of pain.

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