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WESTMINSTER DIARY: ‘Pingdemic’ chaos but case rises real problem

According to commentators and news reporters, we find ourselves amidst a ‘pingdemic.’ I’m not sure the term is particularly helpful. Mainly because it shifts focus away from reducing Covid cases and solely on to the disastrous management of the NHS Test and Trace app. Admittedly, the Government’s failure to update the app as the vaccination programme has progressed has resulted in unmitigated chaos. Hundreds of thousands of people over the last week or so have been ‘pinged’ and informed that they must self-isolate after coming into contact with someone with the virus.

Yet we must be mindful that concerns about the management of the Test and Trace app should not subsume much more grave concerns about cases, hospitalisations and deaths continuing to rise. It must be the Government’s primary focus to prevent transmission and bring down the number of positive cases as fast as it possibly can. If it does not, we face the spectre of a vaccine-resistant variant – mutating as cases multiply – or yet another economically disastrous lockdown.

The vaccine is certainly no panacea just yet. But the Government has reopened the economy under the proviso that it has made us safe enough to do away with restrictions. Yet if hundreds of thousands of people (618,000 last week alone) continue to be forced into self-isolation, ministers’ logic will surely be drawn into question. Cancelled bin collections, small businesses having to close and empty shelves in shops are just some of the consequences. The Government has been forced to introduce special exceptions from self-isolation from those in product packaging industries and other essential trades – once again lifting the veil on how important low-paid key workers are for our economy.

Of course, we need mass testing made more available immediately. And therefore, it is curious we have seen so many laboratories closed across the UK, with a mega-laboratory in Scotland completely cancelled and the Leamington Spa laboratory operating at barely 10% capacity. A far cry from being ‘open’ and fully functional as the Government’s press release – regurgitated uncritically by most of the press – claimed. It is encouraging, though, that more testing sites are being opened and some workplaces are being exempt from self-isolation with more regular testing in place. But it is unfortunate the Government chose not to listen to the scientific community or Labour about how to reopen our society responsibly – with ramping up testing capacity long called for if we were to scrap other restrictions.

And in similarly desperate circumstances, the Government claims it will impose vaccine passports on younger people – first those who want to visit clubs, now those who want to return to their studies at university after a year of interruption, Governmental neglect and Ministerial failures. This Government is now threatening to undermine personal liberties and disrupt the development of young people even more than it has already. Stigmatising and denying the rights of young people will not work – and is opposed by many Conservative MPs. And I’m quite sure these plans represent nothing more than a desperate, empty threat. That being said, the Government must work constructively with health and education settings to encourage vaccine take up while also offering more drop-in vaccination opportunities. Though many young people are rightly aggrieved by their treatment, they must also remember that hospitalisations are rising fast in their age group, and long Covid is a terrible prospect that can damage their cognitive development. And the vaccine remains the best route out of this dreadful situation.