Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Science & Tech
  2. Coronavirus
8 July 2021updated 20 Aug 2021 2:05pm

How many people will delete the NHS app as self-isolation alerts rise?

The number of people receiving self-isolation alerts now far exceeds the number of Covid-19 cases.

By Michael Goodier

The number of people being told to self-isolate by the NHS Covid-19 app is now three times higher than the number testing positive for the virus.

This is positive news for the NHS’s Test and Trace system and it is how contact tracing is supposed to work (those taken ill will likely have been in contact with more than one person). Until the third wave of Covid-19, the number of people being “pinged” had consistently remained lower than case figures.

 

But the app’s recent success at reaching more close contacts may prove its undoing as restrictions are lifted. The Financial Times has estimated that around two million people a week will be at risk of contracting Covid-19 or being asked to self-isolate if Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s prediction of 100,000 cases a day becomes a reality – which will come at a cost to NHS ward staff rotas as well as businesses across the country. The Daily Telegraph has reported that Javid is considering lowering the sensitivity of the app in order to reduce the number of alerts.

[See also: Is there an acceptable number of Covid-19 deaths?]

According to Politico’s London Playbook newsletter, the Department for Health fears that people may delete the NHS app en masse when they realise that contact isolation will continue for most of the summer and that the likelihood of being pinged will rise in line with cases. 

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy
THANK YOU

This fear is supported by NHS figures, which show 12.5 million venue check-ins using the app in the week to 30 June – down from 14.5 million in the first week of June.

Content from our partners
Our common endeavour
Why economic growth needs the right leaders
Why ports are the gateway to growth

When asked about this risk at PMQs by Keir Starmer, Boris Johnson said: “Of course we are going to continue with the programme of self-isolation for as long as that is necessary but what we are also doing is moving to a system of testing rather than self-isolation and we can do that because of massive roll-out of the vaccine programme.”

[See also: Leader: Living with Covid]

Tim (not his real name), a researcher from Brighton, is one of those who has already deleted the app. “The app is ridiculous, it doesn’t take context into account,” he said. “We know now that Covid-19 doesn’t spread outside, yet the app will still ping you. I’m not putting my life on hold for that.”

However, many young people are civic-minded enough to continue using the app. Luke, a young professional living in London, told the New Statesman: “I did think about getting rid of it, but what stopped me was the fact I visit care homes. I thought it was unwise to take the extra risk.” 

The NHS does not publish figures on the number of people who have deleted the app. The latest figures show it has been installed on 26,181,370 different phone accounts.

England’s major cities and university towns have been most affected by self-isolation. NHS figures show Newcastle, York, Oxford, Manchester, Warwick, Bristol, Brighton, and several London boroughs have had the most alerts sent out relative to their population in the last week. You can see how affected your area has been on the map below.

England’s major cities are the most affected by NHS app self-isolation
Number of NHS app alerts sent out by local authority, week ending June 30

The app has saved lives. Analysis by The Alan Turing Institute and Oxford University indicated that it prevented approximately 600,000 cases of coronavirus between September and December 2020, thousands of which would have proven fatal. But now that national restrictions are being lifted and some form of normality is returning, the government may find that the public’s tolerance is weakening. 

[See also: Why Covid-19 means it will still be impossible for the economy to return to “normal”]