When the NHS COVID-19 app was launched in September 2020, few could have predicted that it would be responsible for what is now being called the “pingdemic”. In July this year, more than 600,000 people have been notified or ‘pinged’ by the app and told to self-isolate.
Supermarkets are warning of some food shortages and needing to reduce store opening times due to staff having to isolate; local councils have had to suspend bin collections; bars have had to close last-minute; and one music festival – Houghton – has even cancelled over lack of staff.
In recent weeks, it has emerged that more and more people are simply deleting the app, which uses bluetooth to track if you have been close to anybody who has tested positive. One YouGov survey found that one in ten users had deleted the app. In an Instagram survey of over 18,000 VICE UK followers, 42 percent said they had gotten rid of it to avoid being pinged.
Emily and Holly, both researchers, have recently given up using it entirely. Holly was pinged twice in the space of a week. She was first told to self-isolate over the weekend and was then, three days after coming out of that, pinged again. One of her flatmates was told to isolate for just one day. “I don’t have very much faith that it’s accurate,” she says. “I think the system needs an update.”
Emily says that the app’s own advice doesn’t make sense, pointing out that under the ‘How and when should I pause contract tracing?’ section, the guidelines state that you should pause your app when “working behind a fixed screen and are fully protected from other people”. She argues that the wording feels misleading, given that restaurants have plastic shielding screens between tables, yet require customers to check in using the app.
It’s no surprise that there is serious mistrust in the app and mass confusion around the self-isolating rules. Just last week, PM Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak claimed they did not have to self-isolate despite being pinged after coming into contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who had tested positive, because they were taking part in a new workplace pilot scheme.
They made a rapid U-turn after heavy criticism, with Johnson explaining they had only “briefly” considered taking part in the scheme, but eventually decided to “stick to the same rules” as everyone else and self-isolate at Chequers. "When it comes to creating confusion, the prime minister is a super-spreader," opposition leader Keir Starmer commented.
Elaine, a retired credit controller, says she also deleted the app because she “didn’t trust it to come back with the correct information”. This is based in part on the fact that she has received multiple COVID test results under other people’s names via text message, leading her to lose faith in the whole test and trace system. “If I’m getting someone else’s results, who do you trust? I believe people are being pinged when they shouldn’t be.”
Judith, a charity worker, and Lucy, a recruiter, both share the belief that the app is pinging people who haven’t actually come into close contact with an infected person. Judith turned off her app after being asked to scan into a restaurant despite being sat outdoors. “Had someone eating inside got COVID, I would not have been anywhere near them but would have been told to self-isolate,” she explains.
Lucy kept being pinged after visiting her daughter in a busy London suburb. As Lucy and her husband only socialised with a small bubble and no one else in it was being pinged, it seemed that the app was picking up on people who might have walked past on the other side of the street who then tested positive.
“We got fed up with it,” she says. She also didn’t like the app’s intrusive nature: “It’s like Big Brother watching you,” she added, referring to its Bluetooth location tracker.
All of the people that VICE spoke to wanted their last names withheld out of fear that they might get into trouble at work or with the authorities. But it is not, and never has been, a legal requirement to download the app, nor is it illegal to delete it. You are not lawfully obliged to self-isolate if pinged by the app – only if you are contacted by the Test and Trace service.
However, the UK government strongly advises that anyone who has come into contact with someone who has tested positive or is pinged should self-isolate, even if they are asymptomatic (i.e. not experiencing any symptoms)
The UK’s R number is currently between 1.2 and 1.4, meaning that every ten people who have the virus will infect between 12 and 14 others. In mid-July, the UK recorded the highest number of infections for six months, with cases reaching 48,553.
The Department for Health and Social Care did not provide VICE with data on how many people were deleting the app. A government spokesperson said: “The NHS COVID-19 app is reducing the spread of coronavirus and prevented an estimated 600,000 COVID-19 cases and 8,000 deaths between September and December 2020.
“[It] is doing exactly what it was designed to do - informing close contacts of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 that they are at risk and advising them to isolate to protect themselves and others.”
Responding to why the number of people being pinged has risen, they said: “It is expected that as we see a rise in cases and increase in socialisation, more people will be alerted by the NHS COVID-19 App to inform them they are at risk.”
They also added that the government has set up the NHS Test and Trace Support Payment for those who have been told to isolate who are “on low income, unable to work from home and will lose income as a result of self-isolating.”