TENS of thousands of Brits may have needlessly been told to self-isolate because of an NHS Covid app error, according to reports.
Whistleblowers are claiming that the app should only ever have looked at people’s close contacts as far back as two days – not five, which was how it was programmed until early August.
At the beginning of August, the Covid app was watered down so fewer people were “pinged” and sent into self-isolation amid the “pingdemic” taking over Britain.
Only those in contact with a Covid case two days prior would now be told to stay at home, compared to five days which was set up on the software.
It hoped to save thousands of people from needlessly quarantining at home despite negative test results.
But Whitehall whistleblowers say that the app should have never trawled as far back as five days, in line with official guidance and NHS Test and Trace rules.
This means tens of thousands of people may have been needlessly pinged and told to self-isolate when coming into contact with a positive person three to five days prior to their test.
Matt Hancock, then health secretary, was made aware of the problem in June – but no decision was made, reports the Guardian.
A month later, Sajid Javid made the change – saying it would “ensure we are striking the right balance” between reducing disrupting “pings” and protecting those at risk.
He 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.
“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.”
A Whitehall source told the Guardian: “The standard definition of a contact in all the scientific and public stuff from Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace is someone who has been in contact from two days before they have symptoms and if they don’t have symptoms but test positive, you go back two days from the test.
“But the app had five days in it. A submission was made to Hancock from Test and Trace people around the time of his resignation saying ‘it’s five days but it should be two days: should we change it now?’ And it didn’t happen.”
The app uses an algorithm based on Bluetooth signal and pings those who have been within two metres of a Covid-positive person for 15 minutes or more.
And from yesterday, fully vaccinated contacts in England are exempt from isolation and instead will be advised to take a PCR test.
Those who are not fully vaccinated still are required to isolate.
At the time of the change at the beginning of August, Dr Jenny Harries, CEO of the UK Health Security Agency, said: “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.
“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.
“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.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “The NHS Covid-19 app is a key tool in our pandemic response, saving thousands of lives and breaking chains of transmission. The app prevented up to 2,000 cases of Covid-19 a day in July.
“App users will only ever be advised to isolate if they have been in close contact with an individual who goes on to test positive for Covid-19. It is important [for] users [to] isolate when asked to do so in order to stop the spread of the virus.
“The recent change to the app logic will result in fewer low-risk contacts being advised to isolate, while advising the same number of high-risk contacts to self-isolate.”