In Brief

Thousands told to self-isolate in Covid app pinging error, claims Whitehall whistleblower

Source says Matt Hancock was privately told of the issue shortly before he resigned as health secretary

Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson

A Whitehall whistleblower says thousands of people may have had to isolate unnecessarily because an error meant they were “pinged” by the Covid app for a “close contact” in the previous five days rather than two.

Until earlier this month, the public were not made aware that the app could alert users to contact with an infected person as far back as five days before the positive test, says The Guardian. Instead, official guidance for both the NHS Covid app and the NHS Test and Trace service said they used two days for their definition of a close contact.

This means that many thousands of people – those who had contact with symptomless people between five and three days before the positive test – may have been asked to isolate unnecessarily, says the newspaper.

The Whitehall source said Matt Hancock, the health secretary at the time, was privately told of the issue shortly before he resigned at the end of June but it was not made public.

His successor, Sajid Javid, subsequently “ordered a review of the app as increasing numbers of people without symptoms and who never tested positive were forced to self-isolate”, reported Sky News earlier this month.

Javid then announced that the app would be updated so that people without symptoms would have their contacts searched for only two days prior to their positive test, rather than five.

“The standard definition of a contact in all the scientific and public stuff from Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace is someone who has been in contact from two days before they have symptoms and if they don’t have symptoms but test positive, you go back two days from the test,” the source told The Guardian.

“But the app had five days in it. A submission was made to Hancock from Test and Trace people around the time of his resignation saying ‘it’s five days but it should be two days: should we change it now? And it didn’t happen.’”

The shadow health minister, Justin Madders, said the revelation was “another shambolic situation from hapless ministers”, while Al Ghaff, chief operating officer of the privacy campaigning organisation the Open Rights Group, said: “The disclosure means that many thousands of people have been pinged by the Covid app without their consent.”

The Department of Health and Social Care did not challenge the whistleblower’s account, but said: “The recent change to the app logic will result in fewer low-risk contacts being advised to isolate, while advising the same number of high-risk contacts to self-isolate.”

The news emerged 24 hours after Covid isolation rules in England changed, so people who are fully vaccinated are no longer required to quarantine if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

In recent months the “pingdemic” meant that as many as 1.7 million Britons were “thought to be in quarantine, either through being pinged by the NHS Covid app or contacted by Test and Trace officials”.

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