LONDON — Gas stations closed, garbage collection canceled and supermarket shelves stripped bare of food, water and other essential goods.
In a week when Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised England a return to normality after the end of months of lockdown rules, a coronavirus-weary nation has instead been battered by a new crisis.
This one is being called the “pingdemic.”
With virus case numbers surging again, hundreds of thousands of people have been notified — or pinged — by a government-sponsored phone app asking them to self-isolate for 10 days because they were in contact with someone who had tested positive.
So many workers have been affected that some businesses have closed their doors or started a desperate search for new staff, and a political battle has erupted with the opposition Labour Party warning of “a summer of chaos” after contradictory statements from the government about how to respond if pinged.
Those notified by the app are not required by law to isolate but the government’s official position is that it wants them to do so. On Thursday, it said that some workers in a number of critical sectors could be exempted from self-isolation in order to keep things running.
That followed a warning from the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, of possible disruption to the capital’s transportation network, food supplies and refuse collection services. A police force in the West Midlands said it had been hit by staff shortages. Stores have appealed to customers not to indulge in panic buying, and there have even been calls for the government to consider using the military to help fill a shortfall of truck drivers.
“There does seem to be utter chaos at the heart of government at the moment: You have ministers not speaking from the same script, and that suggests that there isn’t a script,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, adding that it was obvious that a rise in case numbers — which the government itself predicted — would mean more people being pinged.
This was not what the government was hoping for when it lifted most coronavirus legal restrictions in England on Monday, a moment hailed as “Freedom Day” by the tabloids.
Mr. Johnson argues that the country has good levels of protection because of its successful vaccine rollout and that summer is the best time to end the rules because schools are on vacation breaks and there tends to be less virus transmission with people spending more time outdoors.
But the relaxation coincided with a big spike in new cases, numbering around 40,000 a day, prompted by the highly infectious Delta variant. Inevitably that has been reflected in the numbers of people being pinged; in the week of July 8 to 15, more than 600,000 alerts were issued by the app, putting acute strain on many businesses and public services.
Supermarkets have warned of staff shortages, as have trucking firms, and the British Meat Processors Association said that 5 to 10 percent of the work force of some of its companies had been pinged. If the situation deteriorates further, some will be forced to start shutting down production lines, it said.
“I am increasingly concerned…
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