NHS Covid app tweaked so fewer contacts told to isolate as ministers U-turn over 'pingdemic'

ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan reports on the latest changes with the NHS Covid app

The NHS Covid-19 app has been tweaked so that fewer coronavirus contacts will be told to self-isolate, after recent figures showed more than 685,000 people were 'pinged' by the app in a single week.

The adjustment means someone needs to have been near a positive but asymptomatic individual two days prior to them inputting a positive test result to the app, rather than five.

Sensitivity of the app has not been altered, nor has the risk threshold, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.

"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," Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said.

"This update to the app will help ensure that we are striking the right balance.

Why have ministers U-turned after initially saying the app would not be tweaked?

People are still being urged to continue following the app's self-isolation advice, which the head of NHS Test and Trace says has "saved thousands of lives over the course of this pandemic".

Dr Jenny Harries said: “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.”

"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."

It's another U-turn for the government, which, in the face of pleas from businesses had repeatedly refused to adjust the app, despite complaints of severe staff shortages caused by huge numbers being told to self-isolate.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Defending the app, DHSC said it averted up to 2,000 cases per day, and over 50,000 cases in the first three weeks of July, which it estimated to have prevented 1,600 hospitalisations.

There had been widespread reports of people deleting the app in recent weeks in order to avoid being told to self-isolate, but DHSC says the service is still being widely used.

How the Covid-19 NHS app works

How and when should I pause contact tracing?

Users of the app can pause contact tracing by selecting 'Manage contact tracing' on the home screen, then toggle on or off.

You should pause contact tracing when you:

  • are working behind a fixed screen and are fully protected from other people

  • store your phone in a locker or communal area, for example while working or taking part in a leisure activity like swimming

  • are a worker in health and social care and are wearing medical grade PPE such as a surgical mask

  • are a healthcare worker working in a healthcare building such as a hospital or GP surgery 

You can set a reminder to turn contact tracing back on after 4 hours, 8 hours or 12 hours. 

When contact tracing is paused, you will still be able to check into venues with an official NHS QR code poster.

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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When will I be 'pinged' by the NHS app?

If an app user tests positive for coronavirus, they can choose to share their result anonymously.

The NHS will then send alerts to other app users who have spent time near them, or been in ‘close contact', over the last few days. These alerts will never identify an individual.

‘Close contact’ is based on an algorithm, but generally means you've been within 2 metres of someone with coronavirus for 15 minutes or more. 

If the app user who tested positive booked their test through the app, the test result will come through to their app automatically. However they still need to click ‘share random IDs’ before their close contacts can be notified. If they booked their test through another route, they will also need to link their test result into the app using a code.

This means that you will not always receive a close contact alert on the same day that the person received their positive test result.

Your self-isolation period is calculated from the date at which you were in close contact with the person who tested positive. 

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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What should I do if I am 'pinged' by the app?

If you receive an alert telling you that you've been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus, and you need to self-isolate, then you will have to say at home for a full 10 days following that contact.

It can take up to 10 days for symptoms to appear. People in your household will not need to isolate unless you develop symptoms.

If you develop coronavirus symptoms during this 10 day period, you are advised to use the symptom checker in the NHS COVID-19 app to find out if it could be coronavirus.

If the app confirms that you may have coronavirus, it will take you to a website where you can book a coronavirus test.

If you have coronavirus symptoms, you and anyone in your household or support bubble will have to stay at home until you’ve been tested, and got your result and advice on what to do next.

If you do not develop symptoms after 10 days, you can stop self-isolating. You will not need a coronavirus test.

If you are under 18 years old, and test positive for coronavirus, you should notify a trusted adult before taking any action.

If you have questions about how the advice applies to you, or are struggling with self-isolation, you are advised to call 111.

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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What is the difference between contact tracing and checking into venues?

Contact tracing and the venue check-in function are two methods used by the NHS COVID-19 app,

When you have contact tracing switched on, your app will use Bluetooth to know when it has come into close contact with other nearby app users.

‘Close contact’ is generally 2 metres for 15 minutes or more.

If any of those nearby app users later test positive for coronavirus, you will receive an alert with advice on what to do.

The alerts are based on a ‘risk-scoring algorithm’ developed by scientific experts.

When you check into venues using the app and official NHS QR code posters, this data is held on your phone.

If it’s identified that people who were there on the same day have since tested positive for coronavirus, you may get an alert with advice on what to do.

The venue check-in feature works independently of the contact tracing feature.

If you get a venue alert it will not tell you to self-isolate.

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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What alerts will the NHS COVID-19 app send me?

The NHS COVID-19 app will send alerts in these situations:

  • You’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19). 

  • You have visited a venue where you may have come into contact with others who have since tested positive for COVID-19. 

  • Information for your local area has changed.

  • Information for your local area about variants of concern. 

  • You booked your test through the app, and your test results have arrived.

  • You have paused contact tracing and set a reminder to turn it back on.

  • Your guidance has changed. For example, your self-isolation period has come to an end. 

  • You are advised or required to update your app to the latest version. 

  • You did not select 'Notify others' or 'Do not notify others' and over 24 hours have passed. 

  • If you need to self-isolate, you'll be able to see this in the app as a self-isolation countdown timer.

  • Other alerts may say: “Possible COVID-19 Exposure''.

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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"Usage remains high," it said, "with around 40% of the eligible population regularly using the app and around 50% of all reported tests being inputted".

Self-isolation rules for fully vaccinated people will be lifted from August 16, so long as they test negative for coronavirus.

But Dr Harries suggested that people would be expected to keep the NHS app active on their mobile phones for the long term.

"At periods of low infection rates it won't be bothering anybody so we would clearly encourage everybody to keep it running," she said.

She added: "We need to be alert to the fact we may have new variants, for example, or new waves in the future, so absolutely keep [the app]."

At least 689,313 people were told to self-isolate by the NHS Covid-19 app in England and Wales in the week to July 21, but as recently as last Friday Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was insisting changes should not be made because he said a third of those pinged actually develop coronavirus.

"One in three people who are asked to self-isolate do go on to develop coronavirus," the minster told ITV News.

"So while the numbers [of cases] are still relatively high, though we're pleased to see trending downwards, it is important to have this last ability just to try keep a lid on things".