Plans to modify the NHS Covid app to make its alerts less sensitive and prevent massive disruption to people’s lives will not be introduced for several weeks, a cabinet minister said.
Senior government officials are scrambling to prevent the public from mass deleting the app that notifies users if they have been identified as “close contact” of a positive coronavirus case.
Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, said the government had accepted the technology needed to tweak.
“It is important that we have the app, that we take it seriously and that when we receive these messages, we act accordingly,” he told LBC radio on Thursday. “But we’ll think more about how this is a proportionate response.
“The government will be laying out its plans in the coming weeks, so I won’t anticipate them. “
The alert is based on an algorithm that uses Bluetooth to track those who have been within 2 meters of a person with the disease for 15 minutes or more, but also recording data in places such as bars and restaurants.
A total of 520,194 alerts were sent to app users in England in the week leading up to July 7, telling them they had been in close contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. This is an increase from 356,677 the week before – an increase of 46% – and the highest weekly figure since the data was first released in January.
Some MPs have complained that the ping is too sensitive and repeatedly forces the isolation of healthy, low-risk workers who they believe should otherwise be able to escape quarantine by getting tested every day.
Such a trial was underway several months ago but its results have still not been published. They were reportedly delayed in part by the resignation of Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who was replaced by Sajid Javid at the end of June.
Fears are growing that the app will become more outdated anyway, with 19% of adults saying in a recent Savanta ComRes poll that they have it but have since deleted it, and another 20% who still have the app said they would therefore do so after July 19 – the date when most restrictions must be lifted.
Reports said that due to the ping some NHS hospitals are reporting staff absences of up to 25%, the UK’s largest car factory has 700 employees and bus and train services are frequently canceled or delayed because drivers are told to self-isolate.
More and more schoolchildren are also being forced into solitary confinement, due to the system of “bubbles” which forces them not to enter class if two members of the group are positive, which wreaks havoc on parents who have to. then take care of them at home. or organize childcare.
The latest statistics show 11.2% of students in England were in segregation as of July 8, an increase from 8.5% the week before and 5.1% the week before.
Jenrick hinted that the “more proportionate approach” was only likely to be introduced for those who have both Covid vaccines, as part of the government’s additional push for people to get the full vaccine.
But Labor leader Keir Starmer has raised concerns, likening the change in the app’s alert algorithm to “removing the batteries from the smoke detector.”
He had previously told the Guardian: ‘This is so obviously to weaken the defenses that we have – and if the consequence of the Prime Minister’s decision is that people are removing the NHS app, or the app is weakened, then this is a pretty good indicator that the prime minister’s decision is wrong.
Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, told MPs last week: ‘We have work in progress at the moment as it is entirely possible to tune the app to ensure it is adapted to the risk.
“When the app kicked in, we know it was hugely successful, but it was used in a world where we didn’t have vaccines. So working on what a vaccinated population means using the app is something we’re actively doing right now. “