Ministers shelve plans to tweak Covid app as cases in England surge | Coronavirus

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Ministers have shelved proposals to urgently overhaul the Covid contact tracing app in England as cases surge, prompting claims they have lost control of the so-called “pingdemic” days before restrictions are dropped.

As the number of people “pinged” and told to isolate rose 46% in a week to more than 520,000, the knock-on effects ballooned and prompted concerns that growing numbers will delete or ignore the app.

The head of NHS Providers warned that the number of health workers being told to self-isolate was “significantly impacting” patient care while South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS foundation trust asked staff to postpone their holidays due to the “extreme pressure” of patients suffering Covid, which rose from two to 80 in a month.

Meanwhile, bin collections were disrupted across Liverpool, Norfolk, Coventry, and Lancashire because of staff needing to isolate.

Downing Street on Friday did not rule out exempting earlier than planned NHS workers and those in crucial 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 mounting pressure to turn down the app’s sensitivity, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, last week acknowledged the level of public frustration and said the new health secretary, Sajid Javid, was looking at an “appropriate, balanced and proportionate” approach.

Dr Jenny Harries, the head of the UK Health Security Agency, went further, saying that because the app was launched before vaccines were rolled out, “working through what a vaccinated population using the app means is something that we are actively doing”.

Tech experts suggested a tweak would be relatively simple, given the app’s code and changes to it are made public. To reduce unnecessary pings, a single value called the “risk threshold” needed to be altered. The app uses this to determine if a user has been exposed to an infection for long enough to run the risk of catching it themselves.

After days of questions about why the review into the app’s sensitivity had not concluded, a senior government source revealed that Javid had examined the matter but decided against making any changes for now, although the option remained under consideration.

Scientists advising the government defended the app, saying it was doing what it was designed to. Prof Cath Noakes said “the issue is really high prevalence of the virus”, a view echoed by another member of Sage who said that changing the app would nullify its purpose and that a test to release system could help people who had been pinged – but that would be tricky given the concerns over PCR testing capacity.

Statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter said there appeared to be a “mismatch in policy” as the government prepares to scrap legal measures such as mask-wearing from Monday while “causing massive disruption” to the economy and families by telling millions of people to isolate.

While new rules will come into force on 16 August exempting double-jabbed people in England from having to isolate if a close contact has tested positive, the revelation that the app would remain unchanged in the run-up to that date was criticised by Tory backbenchers including Mark Harper, chair of the Covid Recovery Group.

He called the system a “farce” and said the “sensible” changes due to come into force from 16 August “need to be brought forward”.

One Tory MP said they had deleted the app and expected a lot of people to do the same, calling it too much of a “blunt instrument”, while a second admitted “the system’s not working”.

A third branded the decision not to tweak the technology “madness” and a fourth said while only a small percentage of the population was currently being told to isolate, that would quickly grow as restrictions are eased from Monday. They said: “The government might as well do something now rather than wait until the whole country collapses.”

Ben Howlett, a former Conservative politician and managing director of Public Policy Projects, a thinktank that specialises in healthcare, said the public had “lost faith” in the app and ministers had “lost control” of the situation.

He said that to stop case numbers spiralling further out of control the government should “urgently restore faith with significant changes to the app and a new public messaging campaign to restore public confidence”.

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