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The morphing panic.


THE GOVERNMENT’S LATEST wheeze to give the impression that it is on top of the self-generated Great Panic is the announcement of its test, track and trace app, to be trialled on the Isle of Wight. Once you’ve downloaded and installed it, this is how it is supposed to work:

When someone reports symptoms through the app, it will detect any other app users that the person has been in significant contact with over the past few days, including unknown contacts such as someone they may have sat next to on public transport. The app will be able to anonymously alert these contacts and provide advice, including how to get a test to confirm whether or not they do have COVID-19. Users will be able order tests through the app shortly.

For those who may not have access to the app, or the ability to use a smartphone, there will be an option to report symptoms and order tests in other ways.

It’s a glorified way of getting people to book a test for themselves but with unpleasantly authoritarian overtones, as the paragraph that follows shows:

As the integrated service develops, everyone who reports symptoms, including app users, will also be asked to record recent contacts using an online service (or through a telephone interview if they prefer), so that contact tracers can reach all contacts who may be at risk, whether or not those contacts are app users. Contacts will then be alerted either by the app or by email or telephone, advising them to self-isolate or offering public health advice.

Already the example of the app itself has neatly morphed into something else; the language is somewhat slippy here despite its apparent clarity — thus, if you don’t have the app on your phone, but you report coronavirus symptoms (to your doctor, presumably?) you will still be required to provide information. “Will be asked” — I find both the language and the implications of this disturbing, as much because of the inherent incompetence of any state-run process as for the idea of being compelled to surrender information to officials.

If the government intends to expand this app and the additional requirements of reporting to the rest of the country will it also introduce penalties for those who don’t obey?

The question then arises that if the government intends to expand this app and the additional requirements of reporting (even if you are app-less) to the rest of the country

will it also introduce penalties for those who don’t obey? This may sound ridiculously Orwellian but given that one of their first reactions to the epidemic was to pass legislation removing our ancient freedoms without a moment’s thought, why should they not trespass further on our rights? They may not be tyrants through intention but they can certainly become that through pusillanimous ineptitude.

The app, according to the government’s own website, has been “Developed by NHSX, the technology arm of the health service, and a team of world-leading scientists and doctors.” It certainly came as a surprise to me that the NHS has a technology arm and I have to say I don’t find that reassuring. The state is not known for its ability to innovate anything, especially technology. Perhaps that’s why they chucked in the bit about world-leading scientists. They may just as well have said “the world’s top boffins” and shown us pictures of white-coated chaps (and ladies, these days) holding up test tubes, as they used to in the old days, for all it really means. And talking about apps obviously gives the politicos a thrill because it makes them appear up to speed with modern life.

If we stand back and analyse what’s going on here we can see a couple of processes at work as the government’s responses morph from one thing to another. The first is the extension of scientism through the presentation of the app as a technological aid to the “fight” against the virus. “World-leading scientists” adds the halo of authority. It goes along with the magical modelling of Ferguson and his team, the noise about social distancing, ventilators, PPE, masks and the search for the Holy Vaccine. In addition the involvement of a government department signals its absorption into that other curse of modern life, the trust in state bureaucracy. It’s a double delusion: that scientism provides the answer and bureaucracy provides the means to deliver it.

The second process is more to the point. It’s that the app is largely irrelevant. It’s a sop to the public but mainly to the media. It’s a face-saving, rump-covering distraction by the government as it tries to get the country back to work again without admitting that it has blundered.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.

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