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.
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.
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.
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.
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.