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The ‘pingdemic’: How UK's Covid-19 app has created a health headache

·7-min read

Notifications from the UK's official Covid-19 application have increased in recent weeks. A mere 600,000 people received a ‘ping’ this week to alert them that they had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive and they needed to self-isolate for 10 days. Such is the detrimental effect on people’s working life that many are choosing to deactivate it.

David Stupples has fallen victim to Britain’s current ‘pingdemic’. Stupples was walking around a marina a few weeks ago when a notification on his smartphone told him to isolate for 10 days because he had been in the vicinity of someone who tested positive for Covid-19.

“I had been careful to stay away from people, and there was no one around me... except maybe inside the boats,” this professor of electronic engineering at City University of London told FRANCE 24.

Like him, hundreds of thousands of Britons have heard the dreaded ping notification from the official National Health Service (NHS) application since early July. In the week of July 7-15 alone, more than half a million people were put into a 10-day enforced quarantine on the app's recommendations.

Economic recovery under threat

This epidemic of notifications has become a major issue in the British public debate. “I would like to apologise for the inconvenience caused by these notifications [...], but I would like to reiterate that isolation is a vital tool in defending against the spread of disease,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson on July 21, who was himself quarantined after being "pinged" by the app.

But pressure on the government to find a way out of the situation is mounting as more and more sectors of the economy are affected by the pandemic. Several supermarket chains have announced in recent days that they have been forced to close shops across the country due to the high number of employee absences that have forced them to quarantine themselves. In some areas, up to 30 percent of staff in these supermarkets have been notified by the NHS, the Guardian reports.

Road transport is also struggling to cope with this period of the pandemic. Nearly 90,000 lorry drivers are currently unavailable, meaning delays in deliveries to shops and petrol stations.

The NHS has warned that the app's notifciations have caused a large number of absences among hospital staff. This has made it more difficult for patients to be seen, even as the number of patients increases due to the rapid spread of the Covid-19 Delta variant across the country.

The Confederation of British Industry, the UK's largest business organisation, said on July 22 that the pandemic is threatening economic recovery.

“The current approach to self-isolation is closing down the economy rather than opening it up,” said Tony Danker, CBI director general. “This is surely the opposite of what the government intended. Businesses have exhausted their contingency plans and are at risk of grinding to a halt in the next few weeks.”

The government says it has listened to the business community's calls. This week it relaxed the rules to allow employees in certain ‘critical’ sectors – health, road transport and retail – to avoid having to isolate themselves for 10 days in the event of a notification provided they have received both doses of the vaccine.

Overly sensitive Bluetooth to blame?

But the British business community believes this is not enough and is calling for the NHS application to be reviewed and corrected. This current ‘pingdemic’ is the result of a deteriorating health situation and “an application that was poorly designed”, according to Stupples.

Since social-distancing measures were lifted in the UK on July 19, the surge in the much more transmissible Delta variant at least partly explains the increase in notifications.

“The counts of new confirmed cases are at levels that were only as high as they are now, in times after the app was released, between the last few days of December 2020 and mid-January this year. But, back then, people weren’t mixing nearly so much – there were lots of restrictions throughout that time and a pretty well full lockdown for most of it – so people weren’t contacting others nearly so much as they are now,” said Kevin McConway, professor of applied statistics at the Open University in Milton Keynes, in an interview with the Science Media Centre website.

The application is also highly sensitive, which results in “a large number of false positives”, said Stupples. It sends a notification to the user if he or she has been within two metres of a person who has declared a positive test for Covid-19 for more than 20 minutes. There is nothing extraordinary about this, except that to communicate with other phones, the NHS application uses Bluetooth technology that can, for example, pass through walls.

“If I find myself in the street less than two metres away from someone who is isolating themselves at home, the fact that there is a wall between us preventing the virus from passing through doesn't change anything, I would still receive a notification,” explained Stupples.

The best way to solve the problem, he said, would be to reduce the sensitivity of the application. “You don't have to start from scratch, just set the application's signal to one metre instead of two, which would significantly reduce the number of false positives,” said this network signal expert.

Impossible choice

Stupples is not the only one to have suggested this solution since the beginning of the pandemic, but Johnson has so far resisted this option. “The government is concerned that there will be too many false negatives in this case,” explained Stupples.

“Calls to reduce the sensitivity of the app are totally misguided – it would be totally pointless running it then," said Jon Crowcroft, Professor of Communications Systems in the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University, interviewed by the Science Media Centre website. "It would be much more sensible to change the advice to people on what to do when pinged. If you are vaccinated (or previously had covid), then the sane advice would be to do two tests for two successive days (even lateral flow). You go back to work, but test for two days – if both tests are negative, stay at work. If either test is positive, isolate."

Some of those who reject the idea of making the application less sensitive would prefer the government to allow all those who have already been vaccinated not to have to isolate themselves when they come into contact with sick people.

But again, this solution has setbacks. The primary purpose of the vaccine is to prevent the development of severe forms of Covid-19. But “even vaccinated people can continue to transmit the disease”, said Johnson to justify his refusal to give preferential treatment to all Britons who have received two doses.

The government will, however, have to act as the population is beginning to turn the application off to avoid being ‘pinged’.

“I've turned off the Bluetooth on my phone, so that I don't risk receiving any notifications,” a French woman living in London told FRANCE 24, not wanting to risk becoming a victim of the ‘pingdemic’ when she has to return to France for the holidays. A survey published on July 20 by YouGov found that one in five Britons who have the app have turned off the contact tracing feature to avoid the risk of having to self-isolate.

The UK government is therefore faced with an impossible choice. Either it stands firm and risks seeing more and more people simply deactivate the app, which would be counterproductive. Or it can adjust the app’s sensitivity and continue to relax the rules for those who have received a notification. But this is also a risky bet as it would make the application less practical at a time when, with the risk posed by the Delta variant, it remains a vital tool for limiting the spread of the virus.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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