'Pingdemic': NHS Covid app won't be tweaked to be less sensitive, PM confirms

19 July 2021, 13:27 | Updated: 19 July 2021, 14:15

NHS Covid app to be changed "in weeks"

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Despite hundreds of thousands of people being 'pinged', the NHS Covid app won't be tweaked to be made less sensitive, Downing Street has confirmed.

The announcement comes in spite of the government repeatedly saying in the past weeks that the app needs to be amended to combat the number of people being forced into self-isolation.

On 8 July, Chancellor Rishi Sunak told LBC that Health Secretary Sajid Javid is "seeking advice" on a "proportionate" approach for self-isolation when people are 'pinged' by the app.

Speaking to LBC's Tom Swarbrick, Mr Sunak said he could "understand" people's frustrations around being "pinged" by the NHS Test and Trace app.

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Later that day, head of the UK Health Security Agency Dr Jenny Harries said work is under way to "tune" the NHS app to take into account whether people have been vaccinated.

"We have a piece of work ongoing at the moment because it is entirely possible to tune the app to ensure that it is appropriate to the risk," she told the Commons Public Accounts Committee.

The long-delayed NHS Covid-19 app was finally launched on 24 September 2020 to much fanfare, with the government promoting it with adverts in newspapers, online and on social media.

But as cases rise in a largely vaccinated population, the government and Test and Trace team have been forced to admit that the app requires "tuning".

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Last week, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick told LBC he agreed that the app needed to be "more fine-tuned'.

"We're going to give further thought to how we can ensure it is a proportionate response," he told LBC Breakfast host Nick Ferrari.

He added: “The government is going to be setting out its plans in the coming weeks, so I’m not going to pre-empt those.

"But we've indicated that for those who have been double-vaccinated, there are opportunities to take a more proportionate approach."

Hospitality businesses and NHS trusts have warned that they are facing staff shortages as large percentages of their workforce are told to self-isolate as case numbers rise.

In the week to 7 July in England, 520,194 people were alerted
In the week to 7 July in England, 520,194 people were alerted. Picture: NHS Covid-19 app statistics

From 16 August, double-jabbed people can avoid isolation if they come into contact with a Covid case. However, there is almost a month between restrictions lifting and these new rules coming into force, with many warning this cannot continue.

The most recent data revealed that 520,194 people were ordered to self-isolate in the week up to 7 July. This was a 46 per cent increase on the previous week.

As people are normally required to isolate for 10 days, this means significantly more than half a million people are likely to be currently self-isolating due to the app.

One estimate said as many as 1.6m people are currently self-isolating once children and those who actually have Covid are taken into account. Another suggested the figure could even be over two million, calculated on the basis that on average three people are told to self-isolate for every positive case.

The Department for Health and Social Care could not provide an exact total for the number currently self-isolating.

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Boris Johnson's official spokesman said: "We recognise that with high cases that also means a high number of people being required to isolate and that does present significant challenges to businesses.

"We need to strike the right balance between protecting lives and livelihoods.

"That's why we believe it is entirely right that people asked to do so do isolate because we know it prevents onward transmission and eases pressure on our NHS which is facing a significant challenge."

He said the government would "constantly review" issues around critical workers and critical infrastructure.

Asked whether the app was working as expected and so would not be tweaked, the spokesman said: "That's correct."