Don’t blame the track-and-trace app for the UK’s ‘pingdemic’

Earlier this month, more than 600,000 people in England were told to isolate in just one week by the nation's troubled track-and-trace app. Businesses complained. Government officials differed on what to do. And now interest in the app may have waned.

COVID-19 coronavirus morphology is layered amid statistical models and binary code.
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Earlier this month, almost 700,000 people in England and Wales received notifications in just one week from the COVID-19 track-and-trace app that they should self-isolate. And soon thereafter, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic was being called a "pingdemic."

The app uses Bluetooth technology to alert people if they’ve spent 15 minutes or more within two metres of someone who's tested positive for COVID-19. The steep rise in the number of notifications arose as the UK government moved toward ending a large number of coronavirus restrictions in England.

By the time “Freedom Day” rolled around on July 19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak were isolating after meeting with the Secretary of State for Health, who later tested positive for COVID-19. By July 23, the Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, was also isolating after one of his children returned a positive test.

With that backdrop, members of the government expressed concerns about the number of notifications coming from the long-beleaguered track-and-trace app — and some people started agitating to make the app less sensitive. (That idea was shelved.)

On top of that, businesses have begun to blame track-and trace technology for supply chain and service disruptions.

But Philip Scott, chair of the Health and Care Executive at BCS and Reader in health informatics at the University of Portsmouth, said the app — which has run into problems ever since it was released by the National Health Service (NHS) — isn't really the issue.

"There are so many sort of inconsistencies and the way the government keeps changing its tack, one minister says one thing and then Johnson contradicts it," he said. "It leaves the public rather confused. If anything, the technology is better than the rest of the policy."

The contradictions were evident last week as MPs offered conflicting messages about the app, and about how seriously it should be taken. Early in the week, MP Paul Scully (correctly) said that a notification to isolate from the app is not a legal requirement, unlike a call from NHS' Test and Trace. "The app is there to…allow you to make informed decisions,” he said.

Then Downing Street issued a statement distancing itself from the comments, insisting “it was 'crucial' to self-isolate when told.”

Impact on businesses

The isolation warnings have affected industries and businesses across England. In London, some tube lines have been running reduced services, whilst bin collections have been disrupted in Liverpool, Bristol, Norfolk, and Lancashire. The main issue: workers isolating as told.

Photos of empty supermarket shelves have circulated on social media, leading the British Retail Consortium (BRC) to echo comments from trade bodies and business execs: staff shortages, caused by the large number of healthy workers staying home after being “pinged," is “putting increasing pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked."

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), an organisation that represents major employers in the UK, also called for a change to the isolation rules for contacts of people testing positive.

“The current approach to self-isolation is closing down the economy rather than opening it up…," said CBI Director General Tony Danker in a statement. "Businesses have exhausted their contingency plans and are at risk of grinding to a halt in the next few weeks.”

Last Thursday, the government introduced a new wrinkle: workers from 16 sectors, including food production and supply, essential transport, emergency services, digital infrastructure, and local government would be eligible for a pilot scheme that would allow them to avoid isolation.

Companies wanting to take part in the program need to apply directly to the relevant government department and those seeking an exemption must be double vaccinated. Once approved, workers contacted directly by Test and Trace, or pinged by the NHS app, would be exempt from isolation – though they would need a negative PCR test and daily lateral flow tests for 10 days.

“If people have had both vaccinations and are testing negative, then I think it's sensible to allow them to work,” Scott said.

The problems are being compounded by labour shortages caused by Brexit — especially in the hospitality industry. Scott describes that as “an unhelpful starting point," and said the decision about who's exempt from isolation and who isn't has led to confusion.

“If you look at what the food industry has been saying about the supply chain, [the government has said] part of the supply chain is allowed to work. But, when it comes to shop workers who are the ultimate front line of the food supply chain [but won’t be granted government exemptions], if they can't work, then the whole thing falls to pieces.

“I think the principle is right, but I think the implementation is a bit questionable at the moment,” he said.

The future of the app

Researchers from the Turing Institute and Oxford University have suggested that the app may have prevented around 600,000 new cases of COVID-19, with more than 1 million positive test results in England and Wales entered into it since its launch last September.

But the onslaught of isolation pings in recent weeks may have led a growing number of people in England to delete the app; Scott noted that the number of people logging into a venue via the app has dropped by about 30% since the beginning of June.

Combined with news that the government may make vaccine passports mandatory by late September for access to some venues, politicians from all parties have started to argue that the test and trace programme could run out of steam.

“For me, it seemed like a very expensive development and an attempt to patch the fact that the public health information had been so poorly invested in over many years, particularly during the austerity era, with big cuts to local authority budgets,” Scott said. “[Throughout the pandemic], there hasn't been the same level of public health knowledge on the ground locally as there used to be and so they've had to sort of come up with some mad, panic response.”

Scott notes that Matt Hancock, former Secretary of State for Health, was a big believer in technology; for him, the obvious thing to do was develop the app. “I'm not saying the app is worthless, it has done some good, whether its value for money is an unanswered question at this stage,” Scott said.

Under current plans, as of Aug. 16, those who have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine will be able to take a PCR test and forgo isolation if the test comes back negative. But there are calls to move the date forward over fears that large numbers of people will continue to delete or ignore the app.

Though the app’s role will likely diminish as the percentage of fully vaccinated people continues to rise and government policy evolves, the current upswing in notifications is a signal that cases in the UK may again on the rise. 

While the UK government has said it's following the science, but Scott said it's come up with policies that  are inherently contradictory.

“Science, by definition, is reversible,” Scott said. “If you get new data, that changes the science and means you change your theory. A lot of the language being used, and the way things have been presented has contributed to the gradual degradation in behaviour or compliance…and a jaded attitude, which is unfortunate.”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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