NHS Covid app: Contact alerts hit new high in run-up to Christmas

The number of exposure notifications exceeded the levels of the summer ‘pingdemic’, figures show

Credit: PS Imaging

The number of contact alerts issued by the NHS Covid-19 app surged in the run-up to Christmas, with a weekly tally that exceeded anything recorded during the height of the so-called pingdemic of last summer.

NHS data shows that, having risen every week from the start of November onwards, in the seven days to 22 December, the app sent out a record 699,282 exposure notifications to users across England and Wales. This included 26,065 in Wales – close to double the previous highest weekly tally, which was recorded in the prior week: 14,984.

That figure rose further in the final full week of 2021, to 31,499. During the same period, 555,923 contact alerts were issued across England, to take the cumulative total to 587,422.

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Such volumes of alerts have not been seen since the early summer, in the weeks before almost all restrictions on businesses and social interaction were lifted on 19 July. During the seven-day period ending on 21 July, the previous weekly high of 690,711 was recorded.

The number of alerts decreased sharply from this point, falling by almost half the following week, then plateauing in the region of 125,000 to 150,000 per week in September and October. Having crept up slightly thereafter, the number rose markedly in the week ending 15 December to 458,842 – an increase of almost 200,000 compared with the prior week.

After what appeared to be a mass switch-off of the app in the summer, the statistics for December suggest that many may have enabled the contact-tracing software once again – perhaps in light of the rise of the omicron variant, as a precaution ahead of visiting loved ones over the festive period, or prompted by the enactment of the government’s plan B measures. 

In response to an enquiry from PublicTechnology, the UK Health Security Agency indicated that no technical changes have been made to the functionality of the app that might have caused the big increase in exposure notifications. The number of alerts issued in any given week was, instead, attributed to wider factors, including the number of cases and the prevalence of social mixing.

A spokesperson added: “The NHS Covid-19 App has prevented thousands of cases and is a vital tool to help protect against the spread of Covid-19 by alerting people when they may have been in contact with a confirmed case. The app is an essential part of the pandemic response, helping to protect your loved ones and reducing the spread of coronavirus. We encourage everyone to continue using it as another tool to help keep us all safe.”

Although the technology has played an increasingly peripheral role as both vaccination levels and the availability of rapid testing has increased, government messaging has continued to talk up the importance of the app.

In a recently published delivery plan, which covered the strategy for the late summer and autumn, the government said: “We will continue to encourage use of the NHS Covid-19 app, which is an important public health tool helping to break the chains of transmission of the virus, adapting it to respond to the changing policy environment during Step 4,” it says. “Contact tracing will continue and businesses will be strongly encouraged to continue to display QR codes and collect customer contact details. [Although] the legal requirement to do so will be repealed.”


Sam Trendall

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