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Why Are U.K. Employees, Who Don't Have COVID, Not Showing Up For Their Jobs?

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In the U.K., thousands of people are not showing up to work. But it's not that they're sick with COVID. Instead, they're using an app that warns them if they've come in close contact with an infected person. Willem Marx explains how this is complicating things for employers in London.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: It's a sunny afternoon on a busy street in the British capital. And dozens of shoppers are on the hunt for groceries. Brada Delaney's just emerged from a supermarket.

BRADA DELANEY: I've got bread, bleach, roasted potatoes.

MARX: Have you noticed a difference in availability of products here?

DELANEY: Yeah, I have. Vegetables and meat, they're not there. Lots of stuff isn't there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE BEEPING)

MARX: Across the U.K., many stores are struggling to stock shelves or even stay open thanks to a government track-and-trace phone app designed to notify you - or ping you - if you've had close contact with an infected individual and need to self-isolate.

TOM HOLDER: Suddenly, the number of people being pinged by this app was going up exponentially.

MARX: Tom Holder is from the British Retail Consortium.

HOLDER: Shops have been unable to get certain items in and stocked. And there's a few places where supermarkets have had to close down temporarily because they've been unable to have the necessary staff.

MARX: And Jeremy Hunt, who heads the U.K. parliament's health committee, told his fellow legislators this ping-demic is a big problem for the public, many of whom have had two vaccine shots.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEREMY HUNT: People who have been double-jabbed know that if they are pinged, they are less likely to have the disease. And they are therefore starting to ignore the request to self-isolate and, in some cases, delete the app.

MARX: Someone who understands that frustration is Henry Brantly.

HENRY BRANTLY: I haven't been into a restaurant, pub, store. I wear my mask everywhere I go. I'm double vaccinated. And I just couldn't see the point of it, really.

MARX: He runs a global fashion company headquartered in London. And on a recent Sunday evening, it happened.

BRANTLY: I received a ping alert from the NHS COVID app asking me to self-isolate for two days.

MARX: So he stayed home the next day with his dog for company and couldn't meet his latest employee.

BRANTLY: I was looking forward to welcoming her in person, making her feel part of the team from minute one, and sadly had to call her up and say, I'm so sorry. We're going to have to integrate you from home, not face to face in the office.

MARX: The government has now responded to these concerns with around 10,000 food manufacturing and supply workers able to ignore pings and take daily tests instead. But this exemption doesn't yet apply to staff in the stores. The head of one big grocery chain told the BBC a thousand of his employees had to stay home - more than at any point in the pandemic. And it's not just Britain's food industry that's felt the effects of this ping-demic, some of the country's fuel suppliers have as well. I'm filling up my tank at a gas station owned by the energy giant BP. The company has told me that several of their locations in southern England have had to close recently because there've not been enough truck drivers to deliver the fuel.

KARAN BILIMORIA: It's very hard on businesses now. And that is why the government really needs to listen

MARX: Lord Karan Bilimoria is president of the Confederation of British Industry.

BILIMORIA: We're saying right now, if you're informed you've been near somebody who's COVID positive, take a PCR test. If that PCR test is negative, then you can carry on with life as normal and go to work.

MARX: The U.K. government is being criticized for this latest ad hoc solution to a crisis of its own making. Ministers say the problem is being exaggerated and hope falling infection rates will soon put paid to this ping-demic.

For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUCK'S "TWILIGHT IN MAPLE SHADE (CHINESE CYMBALS)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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