Following pressure from trade unions and businesses, Downing Street said the app will now instruct fewer people to self-isolate. It added that the NHS COVID-19 app will now instruct close contacts of COVID-positive Britons to quarantine themselves two days before a positive result – instead of the earlier five days.
The app sent out almost 700,000 alerts in England and Wales during the week to July 21. This strained many businesses whose workers were "pinged" by the NHS app to self-isolate. This represented the higher number sent by the app on record.
U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid stated that the adjustment aimed to reduce the impact of self-isolation notices but still protect those at risk. "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 [the Wuhan coronavirus.] This update to the app will help ensure that we are striking the right balance," he said, stressing that it is still important for people notified by the app to isolate to curb the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
The U.K. Department of Health and Social Care nevertheless said the update "does not impact the sensitivity of the app or change the risk threshold, and will result in the same number of high-risk contacts being advised to self-isolate." It insisted that the app "continues to play a crucial role in breaking chains of transmission, preventing hospitalizations and saving lives."
U.K. Health Security Agency Chief Executive Dr. Jenny Haries said the NHS COVID-19 app has saved thousands of lives, adding that it was "the simplest, easiest and fastest way to find out" if people were exposed to the virus. "[I] strongly encourage everyone, even those fully vaccinated, to continue using the app," she told the BBC. (Related: England's contrived "Freedom Day" overshadowed by "Ping-Demic" food shortages and near-collapse of food infrastructure.)
The tweaks came as Downing Street earlier said that there were no plans to adjust the NHS COVID-19 app. However, it walked back on its statement to bring the "ping-demic" under control.
Junior Shadow Minister for Social Care Liz Kendall criticized the British government's sudden change of stance. "This is yet another COVID U-turn from ministers at a time when the public [needs] clarity and certainty – not chaos and mixed messages. It's shambolic and they must get a grip." Kendall also accused the government of "leaving hundreds of thousands of people forced to self-isolate every day" instead of driving COVID-19 cases down.
The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) welcomed the change to the app. According to its research, up to 1,000 pubs had been forced to close temporarily as workers were pinged by the app to self-isolate. BBPA CEO Emma McClarkin said: "On average, each pub forced to temporarily close due to staff being pinged costs 9,500 British pounds (US$13,199) in lost trade per week and our larger venues much, much more at a critical time in their recovery.
However, the British trade union Unite said the change to the NHS COVID-19 app does not go far enough. It reiterated its earlier call for workers in the automotive and steel industries to be exempted from self-isolation rules. Unite Assistant General Secretary for Manufacturing Steve Turner said: "The costs are horrific to workers and [industries] alike, and there are real concerns that work will move overseas or even that steel furnaces could be damaged – which would be devastating for this industry."
Following criticism by Unite and other entities, the British government launched a new scheme for workers in England. Under the new program, workers in key sectors would be required to undergo COVID-19 tests daily instead of isolating themselves. These included police officers, firefighters and U.K. Border Force officers. Transport and freight staff, supermarket depot workers and those working in food factories were also eligible under the testing scheme.
The daily testing scheme meant workers in England pinged by the NHS app will be able to continue working if they show negative test results each day, regardless of their vaccination status. British Home Secretary Priti Patel said daily testing would keep frontline teams safe while they continued to serve the public and communities. (Related: Tens of thousands of UK coronavirus tests rendered invalid.)
Pandemic.news has more articles about the impact of COVID-19 self-isolation on the U.K.'s workforce.