Ministers have proposed to quickly revise the Covid contact tracking app in the UK when cases rise, prompting claims that they have lost control of the so-called “pingdemic” days before the restrictions lapse.
As the number of people “pinged” and were told to isolate rose 46% in one week to more than 520,000, the knock-on effects ballooned and raised concerns that growing numbers will delete or ignore the app.
The head of NHS providers warned that the number of health workers who were told to isolate themselves had a “significant impact” on patient care, while South Tyneside and the Sunderland NHS trust asked staff to postpone their holidays due of the “extreme pressure” in patients suffering from Covid increased from two to 80 in one month.
Meanwhile, bin collections were disrupted in Liverpool, Norfolk, Coventry and Lancashire due to staff needing insulation.
Downing Street on Friday ruled out excluding earlier-than-planned NHS staff and those in key sectors such as food production, who have had two Covid jabs from the requirement to isolate if identified as a close contact.
In the face of growing pressure to reduce the app’s sensitivity, Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week acknowledged the level of public frustration, saying the new health secretary, Sajid Javid, looked at an “appropriate, balanced and proportionate” approach.
Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, went on to say that because the app was launched before vaccines were rolled out, “we are working through what a vaccinated population using the app means, something we are actively doing” .
Technical experts suggested that a tweak would be relatively simple considering the app’s code and changes until it’s published. To reduce unnecessary ping, a single value called “risk threshold” had to be changed. The app uses this to determine if a user has been exposed to an infection long enough to risk getting it themselves.
After days of questions about why the app’s sensitivity review had not been completed, a senior government source revealed that Javid had investigated the matter but decided not to make changes for now, even though the possibility was still under consideration.
Researchers advising the government defended the app, saying it did what it was designed to do. Prof Cath Noakes said “the problem is really high prevalence of the virus”, a view reiterated by another member of Sage who said that changing the app would nullify its purpose and that a test to release the system could help people who were been pinged – but that would be difficult given the concerns about PCR testing capabilities.
Statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter said there appeared to be a “policy discrepancy” as the government prepares to scrap legal measures such as Masking from Monday, while “causing massive disruption” to the economy and families by asking millions of people to isolate themselves.
While new rules come into force on August 16, exempting double-jabbed people in England from having to isolate if close contact has tested positive, the revelation that the app would remain unchanged in the time up to that date was criticized by Tory backbenchers including Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group.
He called the system a “farce” and said the “sensible” changes, which should take effect on August 16, “should be carried out”.
One Tory MP said they had deleted the app and expected many people to do the same, calling it too much of a “blunt instrument”, while another admitted that “the system does not work”.
A third stamped the decision not to adapt the technology to “madness”, and a fourth said while only a small percentage of the population is currently being told to isolate themselves, it would quickly grow as restrictions are eased from Monday. They said: “The government might as well do something now instead of waiting until the whole country collapses.”
Ben Howlett, a former Conservative politician and CEO of Public Policy Projects, a thin tank specializing in the healthcare sector, said the public had “lost confidence” in the app and ministers had “lost control” of the situation.
He said that in order to stop the number of cases sprouting further out of control, the government needed to “quickly restore faith with significant changes to the app and a new public messaging campaign to restore public confidence”.