What is behind Harrogate's pingdemic and is 'Freedom Day' working for the town
Freedom Day may have arrived in Harrogate this week but it brought with it a new set of problems as well as benefits.
The final stage of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's roadmap on Monday came with little fanfare, some confusion and voices of concern that the easing of Covid rules had either gone too far or not far enough.
Dwarfing everything, however, has been the growing problem of the ‘pingdemic’ thanks the spread of the virus and the NHS test and trace app,
The official weekly figures for the NHS Covid app show there were 1, 920 ‘pings’ in Harrogate in the seven days up to July 7, 2021 with these ‘close contact’ alerts advising self isolation.
That compares to peak time last year when 514 people were ‘pinged’ in Harrogate in the seven days to November 4, 2020.
David Simister, Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive said: “I think the next three to four months will be telling, particularly as the financial relief businesses have received during the pandemic comes to an end.
“There’s also the concern that staff being ‘pinged’, and having to self-isolate, will put added pressure on their businesses, in particular those in hospitality and leisure.
“I’m only too aware of restaurants being forced to temporarily close and hotels unable to offer their full range of services.”
The end of lockdown has been welcomed even by those with misgivings about rising infection rates - even if hospitalisations in Harrogate remain low.
Harrogate BID Manager Matthew Chapman said: “This is a big moment for our town centre, and another step in the right direction for its retail and hospitality industries.
"I know many businesses are keeping some form of restrictions, as they are particularly concerned about staff being forced to self-isolate hampering their operations.
"And when a business does ask customers to observe Covid-safe measures, such as wearing masks, we politely ask them to comply, and not to take any frustrations they may have out on staff.
“Businesses have risen to every challenge so far, and I’m sure if any further barriers are thrown in their way, then these will also be overcome."
The Government’s switch from legal obligation to an invitation for each of us to adopt a “very high level of personal responsibility” means face masks are already becoming less ubiquitous - in some places.
The ending of fixed rules on social distancing has even led to the return of ordering at the bar, or the offer of both bar service and table service.
The opportunity for everyone from shops to arts organisers, sports clubs to public transport to get back on their feet properly after 16 months has been welcomed.
But the latest phase in the country’s handling of the pandemic has also involved a whole new set of problems and the quiet retention of ‘guidance’ in some sectors.
At a national level, trade bodies such as The British Meat Processors Association have warned that food production lines are failing due to the number of workers self-isolating over coronavirus contacts registered by the NHS app.
As a result, the Government has now allowed to allow groups of key workers to be allowed to avoid self-isolation after concerns that the “pingdemic” could lead to food shortages and disruption of the transport and energy networks.
More than 600,000 people were sent self-isolation alerts in the past week.
But the new scheme is likely to include only 10,000 workers in total nationwide.
Clear evidence is emerging that the impact is being felt in Harrogate, too.
Recent days have seen businesses including The Den bar and Baltzerzsens cafe in Harrogate and The Bear at Carriages in Knaresborough having to close their doors temporarily because of absent staff before reopening.
The situation is just as bad in schools as track and trace has sent home more than a million students, even if only a small percentage had tested positive for Covid.
While the Government weighs up whether to respond further to the ‘pingdemic’ nationally, in Harrogate both the public and businesses have been forced for the first time since the pandemic began to make their own choices.
Baltzersen’s cafe in Harrogate conducted its own online survey of customers attitudes on Freedom Day with 800 responses.
And what did it find?
A total of 56% intended to keep wearing face masks in public places while 51% said they would drink in a bar with no rules.