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The Pandemic Middle Class: The Unequal Impact of Test and Trace

As people turn off the ‘Test and Trace’ app to avoid being told to self-isolate, Sophia Alexandra Hall investigates the class implications of the ‘pingdemic’

Photo: NHS

The Pandemic Middle ClassThe Unequal Impact of Test & Trace

As people turn off the ‘Test and Trace’ app to avoid being told to self-isolate, Sophia Alexandra Hall investigates the class implications of the ‘pingdemic’

One in five people using the ‘Test and Trace’ app have turned off their contact-tracing settings, a new YouGov survey has reported. The findings published yesterday also show that one in 10 people living in the UK with a smartphone have installed and subsequently deleted the NHS COVID-19 app.

Aptly coined the ‘pingdemic’ by the media, more than 500,000 people received a notification last week from the NHS Test and Trace app informing them to self-isolate.

However, with reports of people being told to self-isolate due to failings of the app, as opposed to legitimate contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus, thousands of people are being forced to stay home even if they are not at risk of transmitting it.

A 24-year-old business owner who Byline Times spoke to is one of the 10% of people who installed and subsequently deleted the app.

“It came to my attention that people were being pinged who had never even left the house, or had no real contact with other people or the outside world,” they said. “The lack of human agency that the app proposes frightens me. I would use it if I had the option to override it and say ‘actually, no, I literally haven’t left the house’.”

They also argued that there “should be more support for working class folks who would lose out on work if they got pinged”.

“My partner can’t even install the app because of the type of phone that he has,” they added. “It’s just silly to expect everyone to adhere to this one universal thing, while making the app dysfunctional, inaccessible, unbelievably controlling, and still moralising us for not participating.”

A 27-year-old hospitality worker told Byline Times that, if they get pinged, they can’t work and then won’t receive a full wage. “Even though furlough payments are supposed to cover 80% of my wages, they do not include service charge and tips, meaning that I get only 50% of my salary,” they said.

The ‘pingdemic’ has also caused staff shortages where they work. “Last month, we had six members of staff pinged in a single day and it was then up to the remaining few to work back-to-back double shifts to prevent the business from shutting down,” the worker said. “The working class are carrying businesses through this pandemic.”


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Track, Trace, and Classism

The YouGov study has shown that while 53% of ‘middle class’ survey participants said that they had the Test and Trace app, only 40% of working class respondents said they had installed it.

Working class respondents were also more likely to report that they had never downloaded the app, despite having a smartphone. 

Graph showing class demographics of who is using the test and trace app

Professor John Preston, of the University of Essex, has been looking at class dynamics in the Coronavirus pandemic. His book, Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid in the United Kingdom, co-authored by Rhiannon Firth, considers how the Government’s response to the crisis has disadvantaged the working class. 

“These statistics reflect historical and existing structural factors,” he told Byline Times. “These include the experience of state monitoring and surveillance and the necessity to work to exist.”

On why people may have disabled or deleted the app, Prof Preston suggested that “for many working class people in society their relationship with the state is frequently adversarial in terms of policing and surveillance of their communities” and that “policing of pandemic restrictions, and the pathologisation of communities, has been classed”.

There has been a popular view, including with some behavioural scientists, that the Government should be recognised by people as an ‘equal partner’ in terms of its relationship with citizens. However, Prof Preston told Byline Times: “Historically, the state has never been a ‘partner’ of these individuals and communities so there is a fundamental and logical reason behind distrust in these types of applications.”  

“The guidance on and around Coronavirus suits a middle class subjectivity that could negatively judge others as not following the advice,” he added. “This includes deleting the app. So the working class are not only disproportionately affected by these factors but they are judged for doing so.”

In the Image of the Middle Class

Prof Preston believes that the pandemic has exposed the divides between the working and middle classes, with the latter more able to follow the safety advice. This is what he calls “the pandemic middle class”, in that the rules have been based on those who can afford to adapt their lives more easily to follow measures.

“Government guidance, and the models that supported this guidance, made assumptions about the ability to self-isolate and to pursue work and leisure at home,” he told Byline Times. “If you haven’t got a garden, the ability to work from home, and the resources to stay at home, then you structurally can’t follow the guidance. From the start, the state made the usual assumptions about class and the resources to follow preparedness measures.”

According to Prof Preston, “COVID-19 is only part of this long story of how preparedness further divides us”.

A recent example includes confusion over whether the Prime Minister travelled to Chequers before or after receiving a notification to self isolate for 10 days. Boris Johnson is having to self-isolate until the 26 July after being in contact with Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for the Coronavirus last week. Had Johnson not made it to the country manor house, which has a swimming pool, he would have had to remain in his much smaller Downing Street apartment.

It’s another story for the hospitality worker Byline Times spoke to.

“My bedroom is only large enough for a bed and a chest of drawers,” they said. “Because I share with other people, I had to keep myself locked in my room away from any communal spaces. I had no way of getting in any exercise and had to settle for the couple of hours of sunlight I get through my window each day.”

Part of the problem with the Test and Trace app, according to Prof Preston, is that it is an example of “pure disaster capitalism”.

“It’s a transfer of funds from the taxes of workers to corporations and consultants,” he said. “You can trace how profits are made from testing and it is increasingly divorced from public health. We seem to have learnt nothing from the community approach to public health for HIV, for example. Instead, the pandemic has been monetarised and behaviour pathologised.”

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