Plans to tweak the NHS Covid app to make its alerts less sensitive and avoid mass disruption to people’s lives will not be introduced for several weeks, a cabinet minister has admitted.
Senior government figures are scrambling to avoid the public deleting en-masse the app that notifies users if they have been identified as a “close contact” of a positive coronavirus case.
Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, said the government had “accepted” the technology needed tweaking.
“It is important we have the app, that we take it seriously and that when we do get those messages, we act accordingly,” he told LBC radio on Thursday. “But we’re going to give further thought to how it is a proportionate response.
“The government’s going to be setting out its plans in the coming weeks, so I’m not going to pre-empt those.”
The alert is based on an algorithm that uses Bluetooth to track those who have been within 2 metres of someone with the disease for 15 minutes or more, but also check-in data at venues including bars and restaurants.
Some MPs have complained that the ping is too sensitive and repeatedly forcing into isolation healthy and low-risk workers who they think should otherwise be able to escape quarantine by getting tested every day, instead.
Such a trial was in operation several months ago but the results of it have still not been published. They are thought to have been delayed in part by the resignation of the health secretary, Matt Hancock, who was replaced by Sajid Javid at the end of June.
Fears have grown that the app is becoming more obsolete anyway, given 19% of adults reported in a recent Savanta ComRes poll that they used to have it but have since deleted it, and a further 20% who still have the app said they would do so after 19 July – the date most restrictions are to be lifted.
Reports said that due to the ping, some NHS hospitals are reporting staff absences of up to 25%, the UK’s biggest car factory has 700 workers off and bus and train services are frequently cancelled or delayed because drivers are being told to isolate.
Growing numbers of schoolchildren are also being forced into isolation, because of the “bubble” system that means they are forced not to come into the classroom if two members of the group test positive, wreaking havoc for parents who must then look after them at home or arrange childcare.
The latest statistics show that 11.2% of pupils in England were isolating as of 8 July, a rise from 8.5% the previous week and 5.1% the one before.
Jenrick hinted that the “more proportionate approach” was likely to be introduced only for those who have both Covid vaccines, as part of the government’s further nudging of people to get fully inoculated.
But the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, raised concerns, comparing changing the app’s alert algorithm to “taking the batteries out of the smoke alarm”.
He previously told the Guardian: “It is so obviously to weaken the defences that we have – and if the consequence of the prime minister’s decision is that people are deleting the NHS app, or the app is being weakened, then that’s a pretty good indicator that the decision of the prime minister is wrong.”
Dr Jenny Harries, the head of the UK Health Security Agency, told MPs last week: “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.
“When the app came into action, we know it has been hugely successful, but it has been utilised in a world where we did not have vaccinations. So working through what a vaccinated population using the app means is something that we are actively doing at the moment.”