Government makes NHS Covid app less sensitive following ‘pingdemic’ concerns

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The government has moved to make the NHS Covid app less sensitive following concerns that it has been telling too many people to self-isolate.

In an announcement on Monday afternoon ministers said the app would now only ‘ping’ a person’s close contacts from the two days prior to a positive test, instead of the current five days.

It comes after businesses and some MPs had called for the app to be revised amid evidence it has been causing staff shortages across the economy.

Trains have been cancelled, food distribution interrupted, and pubs closed as record numbers of people were told to stay at home following a surge in cases around the ending of legal Covid restrictions.

There have also been concerns, fuelling by polling evidence, that people have been uninstalling the app en masse to prevent it from telling them to self-isolate.

“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,” said health secretary Sajid Javid.

“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.”

The department confirmed that the risk thresholds for deciding whether someone is a close contact in the two-day period still contact traced will remain unchanged.

But now nobody who comes into contact with a person three, four or five days before they test positive will count as a close contact for the purposes of the app, even if they come into close contact with the infected person.

The Department for Health and Social Care said the change would “result in fewer contacts being advised to self-isolate following a close contact with a positive case” and also “result in the same number of high-risk contacts being advised to self-isolate”.

In its announcement the department claimed the change to the cut off point, which will see fewer people pinged, did not amount to a change to “the sensitivity of the app”.

The government may face criticism if it is percieved as removing Covid restrictions in an attempt to make life easier for businesses. Labour leader Keir Starmer had previously said making the app less sensitive would be like “taking the battieries out of the smoke alarm”.

A new record of 689,313 people were told to self-isolate by the app in the week up to 21 July, a rise of 11 per cent. This rate of increase was lower than in the previous week, when the increase was 17 per cent.

Unlike people contacted through the main NHS test and trace service, those pinged by the app are not legally obliged to self-isolate – though the government says it is crucial for them to do so.

The government has however introduced exemptions for workers in sectors like food distribution, medicine, and the power grid. People in named jobs can continue to go to work, though they are being told to self-isolate at other times.

“The NHS Covid-19 app is a really practical example of how technology can be used to fight the biggest challenges we face in protecting and improving our health,” said Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency.

“The app is the simplest, easiest and fastest way to find out whether you have been exposed to the virus, and it has saved thousands of lives over the course of this pandemic.

“I strongly encourage everyone, even those fully vaccinated, to continue using the app.

“It is a lifesaving tool that helps us to stay safe and to protect those closest to us as we return to a more familiar way of life.”

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