When Matt Hancock announced the nationwide rollout of the NHS COVID-19 contact tracing app, the UK health secretary described it as “a defining moment” in the government’s fight against the virus.
VICE News can reveal that less than a week after the service went live, on the 24th of September, anti-lockdown activists and COVID conspiracy theorists were circulating details of a fake NHS mobile app that allows users to evade government contact tracers.
The “Covid 1984” app" is named in reference to a widely-held belief among conspiracists that the novel coronavirus is being used by the government to impose draconian controls over the population. First developed for the Android operating system, and later made available to iPhone users as a browser-based service, the app allows users to type in the name of a venue to generate a false check-in page, which can be used to gain entry without scanning a QR code or providing contact information.
“A little present for you and your friends,” read one message forwarded to several Telegram channels used by anti-lockdown activists. “Fake track and trace, as London was a nightmare to get into places and we was refused entry in nearly all places without abiding to track and trace, which im sure left us all with no entry at all…if you click the link before entering it will show that you have checked in on your screen. It will always change date times for you. Enjoy.”
Anti-lockdown activists posted Telegram messages expressing gratitude after using the app to bypass contact tracing checks at venues.
“In a pub in Nottingham, nicely checked in with the web app, thank you,” said one. Another reported a friend’s experience using the app after being told she would be denied entry to a pub in Birmingham unless she scanned a contract tracing QR code: “She typed in the venue name into the app, flashed it at the girl on the door, and was allowed in. The girl expected to see the successful check-in screen, and was fooled.”
In early October, links to the Covid 1984 app were posted by the Twitter account @WillowWyse, which claimed to be the app’s creator. On the 9th of September, the account urged its followers to resist lockdown measures. “This is no longer about a virus,” the author wrote. “A group of psychopathic billionaires decided, that a pandemic would be a great opportunity for them not only to get even richer, but to smash down and then remake society for their benefit.”
VICE News has identified the owner of the @WillowWyse account as Louisa Haywood-Samuel, a Nordic walking instructor and herbal medicine practitioner based in South Wales. The @WillowWyse Twitter account also lists its location as South Wales, and the same username has previously been used to advertise walking courses and herbal medicine from an address in Carmarthenshire. Companies House lists Haywood-Samuel as the director of Original Medicine Om Ltd, a company registered at the same postcode as the Carmarthenshire address. Until recently, LinkedIn hosted a profile for “Willow (Louisa Haywood-Samuel) Haywood”, who described herself as a medical herbalist and Nordic walking instructor.
Reached by phone, and after confirming her identity, Haywood-Samuel at first denied any knowledge of the app, but went on to confirm she had created it with the help of a development team. At the end of the call, she asked to be identified as Willow, claiming that Haywood-Samuel was her partner’s name and that she had incorrectly identified herself at the start of the call. After the call ended, social media profiles which had been used by Haywood-Samuel to refer to herself as Willow were swiftly deleted.
During the call, Haywood-Samuel said she created the app because of concerns about flaws in the UK’s COVID-19 testing regime that could see people incorrectly identified as being infectious (a possibility that has been identified by infectious disease experts). “Obviously people don’t want to use an app that is going to tell them to quarantine under the threat of a £10,000 fine, on the basis of these highly inaccurate tests,” she said. “They want to give their details manually.”
Asked if those who refused to use the NHS app in favour of giving details manually might be motivated by the desire to provide false contact information, she said: “That wouldn’t be unreasonable, I think, given how inaccurate these lab tests are.”
Haywood-Samuel said she believed in the existence of the COVID-19 virus, but said it was up to individuals to take responsibility for containing its spread. “Nobody should be going out if they have symptoms of COVID,” she said.
Asked if she thought a fake contact tracing app was likely to help efforts to tackle the virus, she offered a critique of the government’s pandemic response. “What we’ve seen with the government’s response to this virus is it’s been mostly about shovelling vast amounts of public money into private pockets,” she said, citing a debunked claim that the contractor Serco was paid to develop the NHS contact tracing app. Asked who else was behind the Covid 1984 app, she said: “The developers are just ordinary citizens who share the same sort of concerns that I’ve expressed to you.”
According to a post by Haywood-Samuel on Telegram, the Covid 1984 app was downloaded 430 times by the 1st of October, although this figure did not include access to the web-based service. Additionally, VICE News is aware that at least one other website allowing users to generate fake check-ins is circulating among anti-lockdown activists.
At this stage, these apps appear unlikely to have had a significant impact on the government’s contact tracing efforts (the official NHS contact tracing app has been downloaded more than 16 million times). However, the app can be seen as a symptom of an increasingly active anti-lockdown movement, with members ranging from Conservative MPs and libertarian activists through to hardcore conspiracy theorists.
Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at Kent University, and a leading researcher into belief in conspiracy theories, said: “Many of the small protests against mask-wearing around the world have included QAnon supporters, anti-vaxxers and others who believe in a range of different conspiracy theories. The anti-establishment believers seem to have found each other at this time with a common cause.”
Douglas said this phenomenon could have significant public health consequences: “If people think that the virus is a hoax, or is exaggerated for some political purpose, it appears that they will be less likely to follow government health advice. This is unfortunate and of course can be very dangerous.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said: “This is an irresponsible and pointless attempt to subvert a public health tool designed to keep people safe and uphold data privacy. The NHS COVID-19 app is designed to protect you and your loved ones, and the check-in feature means that users can be sent notifications with public health advice if needed. Information is held securely on the user’s phone.
“Swift action will be taken if any apps are found to be improperly using NHS or DHSC branding to promote use of their app. We are investigating the legitimacy of the app referenced in this article, and we will take any appropriate action if determined to be necessary.”