Weekly contact alerts via NHS Covid app top half a million

Written by John Johnston and Sam Trendall on 19 July 2021 in News
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Fears continue to rise over people choosing to delete or disable technology

Credit: Danny Lawson/PA Wire/PA Images

Over half-a-million people in England were sent self-isolation alerts via the NHS Covid app in a single week, new stats reveal.

The latest figures released by the NHS show 520,194 people were contacted via the app and told to self-isolate between 1 July and 7 July. It is the highest weekly figure since the app launched, and accounts for almost a sixth of all self-isolation pings since the start of the year.

The number of people told to self-isolate via the app has risen sharply in recent weeks. During the last week of April and the first three weeks of May, a total of between 9,000 and 10,000 alerts were sent each week.

By the beginning of June, this had reached almost 50,000 and then, for the week ending 16 June, 150,000 alerts were sent. Since then, the figure rose to 220,000, then 350,000 before finally breaching the half-a-million barrier.


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The latest figures come amid a major surge in new cases across the UK. There are fears that the jump in requests for people to self-isolate could lead many to delete the app to avoid being told to self-isolate.

Under the current system, anyone who is identified through the app as having been in "close contact" with an infected person is instructed to self-isolate at home for ten days. It is not a legal requirement however, to either use the app, or to self-isolate if requested to via it. 

The government has previously acknowledged that “users of the official NHS Covid-19 contact tracing app are anonymous and we cannot force them to self-isolate or identify them if they are not self-isolating”.

A computer algorithm is used to determine the "risk" posed to people who have spent more than 15 minutes within two metres of someone who has tested positive, including in the two days before they first showed symptoms.

Ministers have already promised that the rules will be relaxed next month, with those who have received two jabs being able to ignore the request unless they have symptoms of the illness.

But the change is not expected to come into force until 16 August, raising fears that millions could stop using the NHS technology after lockdown rules end on 19 July.

Other measures, such as reducing the sensitivity of the app, are also reportedly being considered to slash the number of people being told to self-isolate despite being at low risk. 

But pubs, restaurants and employers have already warned they could be forced to close due to staff being pinged en masse by the app as more people visit public spaces. Meanwhile unions have warned some industries, such as car manufacturers, were already seeing high workplace absences due to the self-isolation rules.

'Concerned'
Ministers and scientific advisers has stressed the importance of the app in tackling the virus, claiming earlier this month the app had resulted in 500,000 cases being detected.

Speaking last week, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said he was "concerned" about the rising figures and insisted "further thought" was being given on how to improve the app.

He said: "We are concerned about absences as a result of being pinged, for example. That is one of the reasons why we do need to move to a more proportionate approach."

The NHS Covid-19 app does not contain any information on a user’s vaccination status – or, indeed, any personal data at all; the only information users are asked to provide is the first half of their postcode. Users of the technology, which detects contacts via Bluetooth signals, are entirely anonymous, with each assigned a random ID.

After the advice changes on 16 August, when a user receives an exposure notification, the app will initially ask them whether they have been fully vaccinated, PublicTechnology understands.

If the user then indicates that they are fully vaccinated – meaning they received their second dose more than two weeks previously – the isolation countdown timer will be turned off and will no longer display. The user in question will, instead, be directed to advice on whether they need to take a test; everyone who tests positive for the virus will still be required to isolate, regardless of vaccine status.

Users who indicate that they have not yet received both jabs will be instructed to self-isolate immediately and for the duration of the required time period, which will be marked on the timer.

 

About the author

John Johnston is a political reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared. He tweets as @johnjohnstonmi.

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