Columns

Am I alone in not wanting to download the Covid app?

31 July 2021

9:00 AM

31 July 2021

9:00 AM

As I begin, I’m tortured by the doo-do-doo-do of The Twilight Zone’s theme music. I’ve hurtled back in time. Suddenly I’m a wise-ass, liberty-loving journalist who’s had it up to my eyeballs with intrusive, ineffectual top-down nanny-ism, and I’m pooping on yet another pitiful feint at ‘doing something’ by the lumbering big state. OK, check. This feels dead familiar. But I went to a poncier school, my hair is way weirder, and it seems that my name is Boris Johnson.

Consider this, then, an act of either plagiarism or ventriloquism. If with a tad more alliteration (I’m keener on assonance myself), Boris of a few years back would have written this very column in The Spectator. The proposition that, to improve the UK’s fat stats, we all download a government app that tracks our supermarket purchases and daily exercise (or lack thereof), purely in the hopes that for fewer calories in and more calories out we’ll earn ‘loyalty points’, which can be exchanged for shop discounts and free concert tickets, well — that’s just the sort of clumsy micromanaging that Before Boris would have mercilessly pilloried. Yet this is the very anti-obesity strategy that Born-Again Boris proposes to trial in January.

It’s unsettling enough that the Tesco algorithm is now clued up on my immoderate fondness for fine green beans. Do I really want to confess to central government my seditious attachment to French butter? Now that whether we hold our own mother’s hand is the government’s business, I guess Boris Johnson wedging uncomfortably into the child seat of my supermarket trolley was only a matter of time.

Presumably the intention is to weaponise kids. ‘Please don’t buy that Cadbury Milk bar, Mum!’ the urchins will plead. ‘It’ll cost us seven points! If you get broccoli instead, we’ve almost enough points to see Beyoncé in October!’ Really? Even if parents are goaded to load up on more vegetables, Brits presently throw away £2.5 billion’s worth of veg every year. Should we nudge that to £3 billion, then? (Unless the NHS installs cameras in our kitchens — though I’m loath to give these people ideas.) For that matter, wily shoppers could scan the carrots on the app and snag the chocolate with cash.


As for the exercise bit, our overlords clearly imagine the lot of us getting cheerfully caught up in a healthy nationwide competition over how many steps we’ve logged and miles we’ve jogged (although I’m sorry to report that those Fitbit gizmos can’t record miles cycled or swum). We’ll joyously celebrate high achievers, who’ll get written up in Telegraphfeatures, a la Captain Tom. It’ll be one big jocular communitarian frenzy, a sports day all year long.

Except, you know what? We’re competitive about exercise anyway — too competitive, if you’re one of those sorts. Should you be unsusceptible to the current social pressure that fills costly private gyms with Energizer Bunnies, you’re apt to figure out how to get your step count up by shaking your smartphone on the sofa while watching the second season of Manifest. For were our ‘loyalty points’ to deliver truly tantalising rewards — doubtful; personally, I’d pay to not go to pop concerts — this app will be a doddle to game.

Shall we consider what already incentivises us all to eat sensibly, keep our weight down and regularly get our blood running? The lower risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease. The social stigma that attaches to fat and sloth; the social status that attaches to skinniness and athleticism. The seductive promise of a longer life and less pain and disability in old age. The fact that obesity massively increases the likelihood of hospitalisation and/or death from a certain respiratory virus that’s got rather a lot of play lately. All that motivation — threats of early demise, private and public opprobrium and hellish physical suffering — is not enough, apparently, to keep two thirds of Britons from being overweight. So what’s bound to do the trick at last? A 10 per cent discount on a T-shirt.

This initiative is disturbing not only for its inevitable inefficacy and subsequent waste of public resources. The fat app is driven by the same impulses that turned an unfortunate pandemic into an excuse for nearly total government dominion over the most intimate, granular aspects of our lives. Now that we’ve abdicated responsibility for our health to Westminster, nothing stops them from refusing us admittance to a nightclub because we ate a piece of chocolate cake, or denying us the privilege of entertainment because we didn’t churn miserably on a stationary bike first. Whatever the answer to obesity is, it doesn’t lie with government. In resorting to a trendily hi-tech pseudo-solution that would lodge the contents of our supermarket shops in a Whitehall computer, this administration displays a positively Chinese appetite for social control.

But please — while we’re on the subject of apps? Downloading the NHS Covid contact-tracing app is not a legal requirement. In the current ‘pingdemic’, that manic digital monstrosity is confining millions to self-isolation, the vast majority of whom are not sick and aren’t contagious with anything other than boredom and claustrophobia. This bluetoothed bogeyman is of dubious epidemiological value, because, just like a lockdown, it overwhelmingly confines the healthy. Yet businesses with insufficient staff are being brought to their knees at the very time the economy is meant to be recovering. Public services are calcifying. Given the law of six degrees of separation, the entire population could soon be pinged into suspended animation.

Can someone explain to me, then: why do so many people have this thing on their phones? Why does anyone? For that matter, the ping to self-isolate is a stern recommendation, but not a legal obligation. Why do all you people comply with these edicts anyway? Do I, as an uncomprehending American, simply lack the one-for-all-and-all-for-one gene? Why download an app that can ruin your life? If you’ve got it, delete it! If you’re pinged, ignore it! Go to bleeding work! For the sake of the nation, stop being so ever loving obedient! Is that so hard?

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