Weakening NHS app is like 'taking batteries out of the smoke detector', Labour leader warns

ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan reports on the contact tracing app

Weakening the NHS contacting tracing app is "like taking the batteries out of the smoke detector", Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has warned as the government confirmed the app would change as rules are eased.

Sir Keir, who was speaking to reporters in Northern Ireland, said he was "really concerned" about changes to the app saying it was "an important protection".

It comes as the latest contract tracing figures showed the number of exposure alerts sent to users of the NHS Covid-19 app in England has risen by more than 60%.

Sir Keir said: "I’m equally worried by the fact that, driven I think by the likely high numbers told to self-isolate, the stories of people deleting the app altogether."

"If the consequence of the prime minister’s decision is that people delete the app or the app is weakened, track and trace is weakened, then that’s a pretty good indication the prime minister’s decision isn’t a good one."

Transport Minister Grant Shapps confirmed on Friday that the app would change as covid restrictions were lifted.

He told ITV News: "We’ll make sure that the app is appropriate to the rules at any given time and we will make sure we do that over the next couple of weeks as we hope the rules change."

Mr Shapps encouraged people not to delete the app saying "I keep it on my phone, I absolutely intend to keep it on there, everyone should keep it on there."

A total of 356,036 alerts were sent to users of the app in England in the week to June 30, telling them they had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for coronavirus.

This is up from 219,391 the previous week – a jump of 62% – and is the highest weekly figure since data was first published in January.

How sensitive is the app? ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen talks to Pocket app co-founder Paul Swaddle

Pocket App co-founder Paul Swaddle said the app could tell someone to isolate even if they are "up to 10 metres" away from a positive case.

"You could be on a tube train and someone further down the carriage could be the trigger", he told ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen.

He added: "The level of sensitivity is quite difficult because the transmitter power is different on different devices and therefore at best you get an approximation of distance."

On Thursday, the head of the UK Health Security Agency said work was taking place to “tune” the NHS Covid app to take account of the fact increasing numbers of people have been vaccinated.

Giving evidence to the Commons Public Accounts Committee, Dr Jenny Harries said the app – which alerts people to the need to self-isolate if they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive – was introduced before vaccines were available.

“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,” Dr Harries said.

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“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.”