Government makes NHS Covid app less sensitive following ‘pingdemic’ concerns

Fewer contacts will be traced by shortening the time a person testing positive is assumed to be infectious

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Monday 02 August 2021 19:36 BST
The app will tell fewer people to self-isolate
The app will tell fewer people to self-isolate (Getty Images)

Tens of thousands of people will no longer be required to self-isolate if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus following major changes to the NHS Covid-19 app, the government has announced.

From Monday, the app will only “ping” a person’s close contacts from the two days prior to a positive test, instead of the current five days.

The move comes following sustained pressure on the government to act after almost 700,000 alerts were sent by the app to users in England and Wales for the week to July 21, a record since it was launched, prompting staffing issues across multiple industries nationwide.

Labour meanwhile has accused the government of “shambolic” mixed messaging and suggested the tweaks to the app were a sign that the government was abandoning its attempts to bring down infection rates.

Liz Kendall, Labour’s shadow health and social care minister, said: “The government has allowed infections to spiral out of control, leaving hundreds of thousands of people forced to self-isolate every day, their response is not to drive down infections but instead quietly change the app that helps to keep us safe.

“This is yet another Covid U-turn from ministers at a time when the public need clarity and certainty – not chaos and mixed messages. It’s shambolic and they must get a grip.”

In recent weeks Britain has seen trains cancelled, food distribution interrupted, and pubs closed as record numbers of people were told to stay at home following a surge in cases around the ending of legal Covid restrictions.

There have also been concerns, fuelling by polling evidence, that people have been uninstalling the app en masse to prevent it from telling them to self-isolate.

The Department of Health claimed in the announcement on Monday that the change to the cut-off point, which will see fewer people pinged, did not amount to a change to “the sensitivity of the app”.

“We want to reduce the disruption that self-isolation can cause for people and businesses, while ensuring we’re protecting those most at risk from this virus. This update to the app will help ensure that we are striking the right balance,” said health secretary Sajid Javid.

“It’s so important that people isolate when asked to do so in order to stop the spread of the virus and protect their communities.”

The department confirmed that the risk thresholds for deciding whether someone is a close contact in the two-day period still contact traced will remain unchanged.

But now nobody who comes into contact with a person three, four or five days before they test positive will count as a close contact for the purposes of the app, even if they come into close contact with the infected person.

Unlike people contacted through the main NHS test and trace service, those pinged by the app are not legally obliged to self-isolate – though the government says it is crucial for them to do so.

The government has however introduced exemptions for workers in sectors like food distribution, medicine, and the power grid. People in named jobs can continue to go to work, though they are being told to self-isolate at other times.

"The NHS Covid-19 app is a really practical example of how technology can be used to fight the biggest challenges we face in protecting and improving our health," said Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency.

"The app is the simplest, easiest and fastest way to find out whether you have been exposed to the virus, and it has saved thousands of lives over the course of this pandemic.

"I strongly encourage everyone, even those fully vaccinated, to continue using the app.

"It is a lifesaving tool that helps us to stay safe and to protect those closest to us as we return to a more familiar way of life."

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