covid-19 coronavirus contact tracing app NHS UK

Attempts to slow ‘pingdemic’ with app changes draw mixed response

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In an attempt to control the ‘pingdemic’, the UK's Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has updated its NHS Covid-19 App to reduce the number of contacts that will be notified if they come into contact with someone infected by the virus.

The Department urged the public to continue using the app, but said that changes made at the beginning of this week will result in fewer contacts being advised to self-isolate following a close contact with a positive case.

Currently, for people who input a positive test but are asymptomatic, the app looks for close contacts five days prior to the positive test. This will be updated based on public health advice to look back at contacts two days prior to a positive test.

The change will mean fewer contacts that took place when the positive case was unlikely to be at the peak of their infectiousness are advised to self-isolate, reducing the overall number of notifications sent by the app.

The changes have not received a positive response from the opposition Labour party. In early July, when the changes were proposed, leader Keir Starmer likened them to “taking batteries out of a smoke alarm”.

Labour’s shadow health minister Liz Kendall 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.”

However, other sectors have received the news more positively, such as the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) which welcomed the change, saying its research found up to 1,000 pubs have been forced to close temporarily due to large numbers of staff being pinged.

Emma McClarkin, the association’s chief executive, said: “On average, each pub forced to temporarily close due to staff being pinged costs £9,500 in lost trade per week and our larger venues much, much more at a critical time in their recovery.

“On top of changes to the NHS app, more investment is needed for our sector if it is to recover and play a leading role in building back better.”

Meanwhile, a recent survey by the manufacturer’s organisation Make UK found that NHS track and trace, the ‘pingdemic’, and confusing isolation rules were having a devastating impact on the productivity of UK businesses.

The trade union Unite said the change to the app did not go far enough and repeated its call for the automotive and steel sectors to be exempt from self-isolation rules.

Steve Turner, the union’s assistant general secretary for manufacturing, said: “Manufacturing workers share shifts so the two-days decision may make little difference. Sometimes whole shifts have been stuck at home as has been the case of late.

“The costs are horrific to workers and industry alike and there are real concerns that work will move overseas or even that steel furnaces could be damaged, which would be devastating for this industry.

“We simply cannot have a situation, for example, where a blast furnace is shut down because workers are stuck at home, testing negatively daily, but forced to self-isolate.

“UK workers must not lose out because the Government’s reopening of the economy is incoherent.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “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.

“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.”

This update comes as new analysis shows the app continues to play a crucial role in breaking chains of transmission and preventing hospitalisations.

DHSC said that analysis from “leading scientists” showed that in the first three weeks of July the app averted up to 2,000 cases per day and over 50,000 cases of Covid-19 including chains of transmission, assuming 60 per cent compliance with instructions to self-isolate. This is estimated to have prevented 1,600 hospitalisations.

Around 40 per cent of the eligible population regularly use the app and around 50 per cent of all reported tests are being inputted.

The app has had a storied history, finally launching in September following months of delay after an initial version was trialled on the Isle of Wight but was found to work poorly on iPhones alongside concerns over data privacy.

Since then, users have faced “phantom” notifications which tell them to self-isolate before disappearing, as well as bugs around how the app loads on users’ smartphones.

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