As expected, government eases sensitivity of its NHS Covid-19 app in effort to reduce ‘pingdemic’ causing worker shortages
As businesses and supermarkets struggle to source enough staff to continue operations, the government has made a change to the NHS Covid-19 app for England and Wales.
The government last month said that the app would be tweaked as coronavirus restrictions changed on 19 July.
And now the government has confirmed that the app has been updated as of Monday 2 August, to notify fewer contacts to isolate. However it is still urging the general public to keep using the app going forward.
The government said the change will result in fewer contacts being advised to self-isolate following a close contact with a positive Covid-19 case.
It said that currently, for people who input a positive test but are asymptomatic, the app looks for close contacts five days prior to a 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 government was keen to stress that this update does not impact the sensitivity of the app, or change the risk threshold, and will result in the same number of high-risk contacts being advised 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,” said Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid. “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,” said Javid.
The government said that its NHS Covid-19 App has played a crucial role in breaking chains of transmission, preventing hospitalisations and saving lives.
And it pointed out that new analysis from leading scientists shows that in the first 3 weeks of July, as cases were exponentially rising, the app averted up to 2,000 cases per day, and over 50,000 cases of Covid-19 including chains of transmission assuming 60 percent compliance with instructions to self-isolate.
This is estimated to have prevented 1,600 hospitalisations.
It also shows the app reduces the spread of Covid-19 by around 4.3 percent each week, and for every 200-250 tests entered and shared in the app one person is prevented from being hospitalised from the virus.
Usage of the app remains high, with around 40 percent of the eligible population regularly using the app and around 50 percent of all reported tests being inputted.
The government is urging the public to continue using the NHS Covid-19 App.
Around one in three people experience this virus without symptoms and, even if they are fully vaccinated, it is possible that they could be unwittingly carrying and spreading the virus, creating a chain of transmission that could have someone vulnerable to the virus at the end of it.
“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, CEO of 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,” said Dr Harries. “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.”
The government said that from 16 August, fully vaccinated contacts in England will be exempt from isolation and instead will be advised to take a PCR test.
Those who are not fully vaccinated will still be required to isolate, and it will remain a legal obligation to isolate if you test positive for Covid-19.
After some delays, the NHS Covid-19 app was made available for download to people in England and Wales in September 2020, in an effort to control Coronavirus transmission rates.
The app forms a central part of the NHS Test and Trace service in England and the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect programme.
Essentially, the contact tracing element of the app works by using Bluetooth to log the amount of time a person spend near other app users, and the distance between them, so it can alert the person if someone they have been close to (on public transport or in the supermarket for example) later tests positive for Covid-19 – even if they don’t know the other person.
The app will advise the user to self-isolate if they have been in close contact with a confirmed case. It will also enable the user to check symptoms, book a free test if needed and get test results.
The government stressed that the app has been designed with user privacy in mind, so it tracks the virus, not people.
According to the government, the system generates a random ID for an individual’s device, which can be exchanged between devices via Bluetooth (not GPS).
These unique random IDs regenerate frequently to add an extra layer of security and preserve anonymity.
Another privacy safeguard is that the app does not hold personal information such as name, address or date of birth, and only requires the first half of a person’s postcode to ensure local outbreaks can be managed.
No personal data is shared with the government or the NHS.
Apps using Apple and Google’s Exposure Notifications platform are barred from sending precise location data to public health authorities, or to the two tech companies.
The NHS switched to the Exposure Notifications platform in June 2020 after finding that its initial, independent system missed too many instances where virus transmission could have occurred.
In April this year Apple and Google blocked an update to the NHS’ Covid-19 contact tracing app over a violation of their privacy rules.