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A pedestrian looks at a newspaper near the entrance to Bank London Underground station, on so-called "Freedom Day" in London on July 19, 2021.
A pedestrian looks at a newspaper near the entrance to Bank London Underground station, on so-called "Freedom Day" in London on July 19, 2021. (Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

U.K. leader Boris Johnson’s pandemic strategy descended into disarray after his own ministers said the public could ignore orders to isolate at home.

Two business ministers — Paul Scully and Gerry Grimstone — made the point that there is no legal requirement for people to self-isolate if they are “pinged” by the National Health Service’s contact tracing smart-phone app and told to quarantine.

The technology uses Bluetooth to identify people who have are at risk because they’ve come into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. But the app has been at the center of a storm this week, after businesses and employers complained staff shortages were pushing them to the brink, with an estimated 1.73 million people across the country isolating.

The so-called “pingdemic” threatens to undermine efforts to revive the economy, which is still recovering from its deepest recession in 300 years. Most pandemic restrictions were lifted in England and Scotland on Monday.

Johnson is determined to reopen the economy, despite surging infection rates, and has said it is vital to follow the app’s “frustrating” orders to isolate in order to keep some control over the pandemic.

Speaking to Times Radio on Tuesday morning, Scully, the small business minister, said people should make “informed decisions” if they’re told to isolate by the app. They are legally required to stay home only if they have been contacted directly by NHS Test and Trace staff or if they’re claiming isolation support payments, he said.

“By backing out of mandating a lot of things, we’re encouraging people to really get the data in their own hands, to be able to make decisions — what’s best for them, whether they’re an employer or an employee,” Scully said.

Grimstone, the investment minister, separately wrote a letter to a company stating that there is no legal duty to self-isolate as a result of being pinged by the app, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Later the government sought to correct the message. “Isolation remains the most important action people can take to stop the spread of the virus,” spokesman for Johnson’s office said. “Given the risk of having and spreading the virus when people have been in contact with someone with Covid it is crucial people isolate when they are told to do so, either by NHS Test and Trace or by the NHS Covid app.”

The spokesman added that businesses “should be supporting employees to isolate”, not “encouraging them to break isolation.”

Johnson told the public on Monday it is “essential to keep up the system of test, trace and isolate,” regardless of how “frustrating” it is to get “pinged.”

The mixed messaging provoked criticism from all sides. Former Tory leader William Hague said the ministers’ comments would cause “greater confusion.” He told Times Radio: “I think it’s a risky approach, I must say, because I think people want to know what is the responsible thing to do?”

Justin Madders, health spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, accused the government of “making it up as they go along.”

“Ministers mix messages, change approach and water down proposals when the public and businesses need clarity and certainty,” he said. “Yet again there is more confusion and incompetence from the heart of government at the expense of public health. They need to get a grip.”

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