A leading epidemiologist has warned the UK’s test and trace system is “broken” after data showed the number of contact tracing alerts has plummeted by 75 per cent since the summer, just as the new omicron variant threatens to trigger a surge in cases.
The latest official statistics for England show that the number of contact tracing alerts – those sent to NHS Covid app users who have been in ‘close contact’ with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus – fell from nearly 700,000 per week during a peak in July to just 175,000 by the middle of November, despite the number of cases in the general population holding steady.
Similarly, the number of Covid app ‘check-ins’ at venues has fallen by 99 per cent since the summer (from 13.2 million in the week ending 9 June, to 150,000 in the week ending 17 November).
The number of times symptoms were reported in the app in England is also down from roughly 35,000 a week in July to 9,000 in November – a drop of 74 per cent.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University London, told The Independent it was “no surprise” that the usage of the app had reduced.
“The messaging from government as of July (‘freedom day’) has been that the pandemic is over,” she said.
“Rhetoric in the media around the ‘pingdemic’ has suggested that contact tracing and isolation is an inconvenience that erodes the workforce rather than a necessary public health measure to break chains of transmission.
“The government also introduced exemptions from quarantine for those vaccinated, and for children, and contact tracing isn’t even happening in schools.
“All this signals that infection doesn’t really matter now that there is a level of vaccination, and that infections don’t matter at all in schools and children. Of course none of this is true.”
She added: “Our test, trace and isolate system is broken. With more than 40,000 cases a day, our system is very likely overwhelmed, and it is very unlikely to be able to deal with additional strain. We need to bring cases down considerably for this to be functional.”
The NHS Covid-19 App has been downloaded 28.9 million times, but it is feared that concerns about the so-called pingdemic over the summer led many to disable contact tracing notifications or delete the app entirely.
Since July, the regulations were changed so that individuals are no longer required to check into venues, and downloading and using the NHS Covid app remains voluntary.
The detection of a new and potentially more transmissible variant has stoked fears over a possible surge in Covid cases in the run up to Christmas.
Responding to the emergence of omicron, the government has toughened up rules on mask wearing and travel – but guidance on using the app is unchanged.
Health officials insist the NHS Test and Trace service has the capacity to deal with any surge in cases, and is currently able to carry out 700,000 PCR tests a day.
However Dr Gurdasani warned that “only a third of our PCR tests currently differentiate omicron from other variants with any reliability, and sequencing of all cases will be difficult and time-consuming”.
Edward Argar, a health minister, said he was “confident” that NHS Test and Trace would be able to “scale up and meet the challenge” of the new coronavirus variant.
He said around nine in 10 contacts were being reached and contacted “within the appropriate time, so it has come a long, long way from when it was first set up, and I’m confident it will be able to scale up and meet the challenge”.
Speaking to The Independent, Dr Luca Ferretti, senior researcher in statistical genetics and pathogen dynamics at the University of Oxford, who serves as an academic advisor to NHS Test and Trace, also defended the system, saying he believed the app was “currently working as expected and it has already been proved effective against multiple variants”.
“The more people use it, the more it can reduce the spread of the virus, irrespective of the dominant SARS-CoV-2 variant,” he said.
But he added that the fall in the number of contact tracing alerts could be linked to a “slightly reduced use of the app”.
“A significant factor is the spread of the epidemic among under-16s, who cannot install the app,” Dr Ferretti said.
“Another push to use the app would be most welcome and useful, especially for contact tracing. Venue checking played a relatively minor role until now, but it is an important intervention and should definitely be encouraged.”
Holly Blake, an associate professor of behavioural science at the University of Nottingham, said she believed the NHS Covid app was “largely doing its job”, but said fears that being “pinged” would lead to people being out of work and losing pay may have contributed to a decline in users.
“It could be that fewer people are using the app to check into venues because they are worried about being asked to self-isolate,” she said. “Self-isolation for some is more than inconvenience, it comes with practical and financial problems and one of the top reasons for people not adhering to self-isolation is financial hardship.
“The key reason that people are engaging less with the system is probably more to do with the costs of self-isolation.”
A UK Health Security spokesperson said: “The NHS Covid-19 App has prevented thousands of cases and is a vital tool to help protect against the spread of Covid-19 by alerting people when they may have been in contact with a confirmed case.
“The app is an essential part of the pandemic response, helping to protect your loved ones and reducing the spread of coronavirus. We encourage everyone to continue using it as another tool to help keep us all safe.”