Up to 1.6 million people in England have been told to isolate in a single week, Guardian analysis has found as the government said the Covid app is unlikely to be changed for weeks.
The number of new UK coronavirus cases climbed to 48,553 on Thursday – the highest since mid-January and the start of the third lockdown – with the upward curve showing no signs of abating, raising fears of a summer of chaos as businesses and households are hit by self-isolation. Sixty-three people were reported on Thursday to have died from the virus.
Ministers have warned the public to expect 50,000 daily cases by the time of England’s major reopening on Monday, rising to 100,000 this summer, but said the success of the vaccine rollout means restrictions should not need to be imposed.
A week ago, after forecasts that up to 10 million would be forced to isolate within a six-week period, Jenny Harries, head of the new Health Security Agency, told MPs the government planned to tweak the Covid-19 app to make it less sensitive and account for the majority of adults now being vaccinated. The need to isolate after exposure to a confirmed Covid case will be dropped for fully vaccinated people in England from 16 August.
On Thursday, however, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said while the government accepted the technology needed tweaking, “we’re going to give further thought to how it is a proportionate response”, adding: “The government is going to be setting out its plans in the coming weeks, so I’m not going to pre-empt those.
“It is important we have the app, that we take it seriously and that when we do get those messages, we act accordingly,” he told the BBC.
Data published by the government and analysed by the Guardian found the number of people being urged to quarantine is rising sharply.
About 337,695 people were told to isolate by NHS test and trace for being identified as a close contact of someone who had tested positive in the week of 1-7 July, according to the latest statistics.
Over the same period, 520,194 people were also pinged by the Covid app. The number of schoolchildren forced into isolation because others in their “bubble” were positive Covid cases stood at 624,000 in the week of 2-8 July.
With the addition of those who themselves tested positive, totalling 194,005, that meant there were up to 1,675,894 people told to isolate over a one-week period in England. There may be a degree of crossover between the groups, with some individuals potentially being counted more than once.
The figure for the previous week stood at 1,206,612 – suggesting the number of people being urged to stay at home is climbing and could continue to do so after the dropping of nearly all Covid restrictions in England from Monday.
Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said the numbers were “staggering – even before Sajid Javid [the health secretary] throws all caution to the wind by scrapping vital protections like mask wearing”.
He told the Guardian: “With signs that testing is slowing, allowing infections to hit 100,000 without action could mean a summer of chaos and serious long-term illness for many people.”
Feryal Clark, a Labour MP, complained on Thursday that when she tried to book a PCR test through the government website, none were available in any region of England. Though the website did show tests could be booked in most areas later in the day, Javid’s Department of Health and Social Care admitted demand for tests was rising.
The Covid app, which monitors users’ closeness to each other and pings them if they have spent more than 15 minutes within 2 metres of someone who later tested positive, was set to be changed to tune down its sensitivity.
Other complaints about the app include that it does not track people’s vaccine status and therefore know of their decreased risk from Covid, whether the contact happened outside, or if screens may have helped reduce the chance of transmission.
A series of trials were run where close contacts were tested every day instead of needing to isolate but the results have still not been published, much to the annoyance of some government insiders.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “The NHS Covid-19 app is reducing the spread of coronavirus and prevented an estimated 600,000 Covid-19 cases and 8,000 deaths between September and December 2020.
“The app is doing exactly what it was designed to do – informing close contacts of someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 that they are at risk and advising them to isolate.
“As cases continue rising it is vital people are aware of their personal risk so they can make informed decisions on their behaviour to protect those around them.”