Britons are deleting the contact tracing app amid fears millions could be ordered to self-isolate this summer. They tell Kate Ng why they made the decision
John Carus, from The Wirral, has already deleted the NHS Covid app. The 63-year-old had initially been reluctant to download the contact-tracing software when it was first launched, but decided to get it as he trusted it would work.
However, a month ago, he opened the app to check into his local pub only to find that it had started a 10-day self-isolation countdown without notifying him. “The only reason I found out that I should have been isolating was because I opened it, I wasn’t notified at all,” he said. “What’s the point of it if they don’t send a message or an email?
“I hadn’t gone or checked in anywhere in the three days before I saw the countdown, which had seven days left on it. I wouldn’t even have known if I’d been pinged, I think that is a major fault.”
The NHS Covid app was designed to help track and trace efforts in managing the pandemic. It notifies people when they should self-isolate if they have come into close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus and uses Bluetooth to detect the distance between users and the length of time spent in the potential exposure zone.
Having the app is not a legal requirement. The NHS says: The NHS Covid-19 app is entirely voluntary and you can choose whether or not to download it. You can also uninstall and delete the app whenever you like.”
But amid warnings that millions could be asked to self-isolate this summer as restrictions lift, many have already made the decision to get rid of it. A poll has suggested that about one in five (20 per cent) adults of all ages in the UK who had the NHS Covid-19 app have since deleted it from their phone. The proportion rises significantly among young people, with more than a third of 18 to 24-year-olds having deleted it already.
Unlike Carus – who deleted the app because a technical glitch meant he questioned its usefulness – it has been suggested that a large number of people are deleting the app (or at least turning off Bluetooth functionality) as case numbers rise and it “presents more of an inconvenience”, said Professor Henry Potts, of University College London.
England’s so-called “Freedom Day” is fast approaching next Monday (19 July), and will see the government lift social distancing restrictions and the mandate to wear face masks, although Boris Johnson has urged people to take personal responsibility over wearing them in crowded spaces.
As the day approaches, scientists and ministers have raised concerns about people choosing to delete the NHS Covid-19 app in order to avoid orders to self-isolate. Last week more the app sent more than 350,000 pings in seven days.
Currently, more than 36,000 Covid-19 infections are being recorded every day. The health secretary Sajid Javid warned last week that there could be as many as 100,000 cases a day this summer after all remaining restrictions are eased.
Although Carus’ faith in the system was first knocked by the glitch – it took a further hit after his wife went to a restaurant with four other people. Three people used the app to check in, while the other two filled out a form with their contact details and returned it to the restaurant.
Later, the three people who used the app – including Carus’ wife – were pinged to self-isolate, but the other two who filled out a form were not contacted.
“It just made me think, there must have been around 200 to 300 people who had gone to that restaurant, there’s no way the restaurant is ringing them all up. But if you fill in a form and no one rings you up, what’s the point? And then everyone else who has the app has to self-isolate?” he said.
“Most normal people are trying to do what they think is best to keep everyone safe but when you see stuff like that, you just think there’s no point.”
For others, like 45-year-old Marion, the turning point with the app was seeing the 60,000-strong crowds at Wembley stadium over the weekend, during the Euro 2020 finals. She deleted the app from her phone after that.
“I’ve been stuck at home for a year and a half, I’ve not been able to go to work, not been able to visit my parents who live in a different country. Then I saw crowds like that and thought, well of course Covid cases are going to go up,” she told The Independent.
“I’m really careful most of the time, but to be honest I’m a bit confused about new rules and I don’t know how contact tracing is going to work once all the restrictions are lifted, I just don’t get it.”
Downing Street has urged people to continue using the NHS Covid app in England and Wales, saying it has been an “important tool” in breaking the chain of transmission of Covid-19. But Marion finds it difficult to see what benefit the app will have if all Covid measures are eased wholesale.
“It just feels like the chance of getting pinged and having to self-isolate will be much, much higher. I, personally, will continue to do my best to be careful, wear a mask and all that, but I really don’t see how the app would work now with everything reopening,” she said.
Chris Hopkins, political research director at Savanta ComRes, said the huge numbers of people who are planning to delete the app or have already show that “attempts to contain the virus without restrictions are likely to be very difficult”.
He added: “Of course, many have reasons for deleting the app, including fearing a lack of income if told to self-isolate.
“However, on this evidence, the government can continue to blame the public if – as some expect – cases, hospitalisations and deaths from coronavirus rise in the latter half of the summer.”