Reducing the sensitivity of the NHS Covid-19 app to cut the number of people forced into self-isolation is like “taking the batteries out of the smoke alarm”, Keir Starmer has said, as he questioned the decision to push on with easing restrictions on 19 July.
Speaking at the end of a three-day visit to Northern Ireland, the Labour leader said he was shocked by reports that ministers had decided to “tune” the app.
“It’s like taking the batteries out of the smoke alarm: it is so obviously to weaken the defences that we have – and if the consequence of the prime minister’s decision is that people are deleting the NHS app, or the app is being weakened, then that’s a pretty good indicator that the decision of the prime minister is wrong,” he said.
The planned tweaking of the app comes amid reports that people were removing it from their phones because of fears about being repeatedly asked to self-isolate.
Dr Jenny Harries, the head of the UK Health Security Agency, told MPs on Thursday: “We have a piece of work ongoing at the moment because it is entirely possible to tune the app to ensure that it is appropriate to the risk.
“When the app came into action, we know it has been hugely successful, but it has been utilised in a world where we did not have vaccinations. So working through what a vaccinated population using the app means is something that we are actively doing at the moment.”
Downing Street has asked that people keep using the app, with the prime minister’s official spokesman saying Boris Johnson is doing so.
The No 10 spokesman said the app had been an “important tool” in breaking the chain of transmission of coronavirus.
“The prime minister has been clear that he continues to use it,” the spokesman said. “We continue to ask people to isolate if they are asked to through the app.”
The plea was echoed by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps who stressed the app’s importance, against a backdrop of concerns about the increasing numbers being “pinged” as restrictions are rolled back.
Rules governing travel for people in England are due to be eased on 19 July, but measures on self-isolation for the fully vaccinated will remain in place until 16 August, raising fears that people will delete the app rather than risk having to cancel a holiday.
Shapps told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “You shouldn’t ignore this (the app) because it is vital information. People should want to know if they have been in contact with somebody with coronavirus.
“You don’t want to be spreading it around. It can still harm people.”
The number of exposure alerts sent to users of the app in England soared by more than 60 per cent in a week, according to the latest contact tracing figures.
Ministers are set to make a final decision on Monday about whether to go ahead with ‘freedom day’ on 19 July, with Starmer stressing his concern about the risks of the government’s plans to end all legal restrictions.
“The prime minister’s approach, as he indicated earlier this week, it’s lifting protections in one go at the same time, notwithstanding that infection rates are rising at a pretty alarming rate, that is going to lead to a summer of chaos,” he said.
Labour has suggested that rules on mask-wearing should be maintained, and repeated calls for better financial support for those forced to self-isolate.