Tens of millions of Britons are poised for self-isolation as Covid restrictions ease

Selective focus. Concept photo.

Oleksandr Siedov | iStock editorial team | Getty Images

LONDON – More than 500,000 people in the UK were asked to self-isolate last week by the government-backed Covid-19 Test and Trace app, with similar numbers expected in the coming weeks.

In the week leading up to July 7, the app alerted 520,194 people in England that they were in close contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus and had to self-isolate.

A BBC analysis last week found that up to 4.5 million people in the UK could be instructed to self-isolate by the test and trace system between mid-July and the policy change on August 16.

A study published in the British Medical Journal in late June looked at the interactions of 5,802 people over 14 days and found that the average participant had 59 interactions that could be defined as close contact. The study found that for each infected person, an average of 36 close contacts could be identified and contacted, which could mean millions are currently being asked to self-isolate.

Earlier this week, UK media reported that Covid app users were “pinged” and asked to self-isolate when their neighbors contracted the virus, using the technology underlying the app’s testing and tracking system, ” close contact ”with positive cases through the walls recognizes their homes.

Currently, anyone in the UK who has had close contact tested positive for Covid must self-isolate at home for 10 days. People can be contacted by the NHS Test and Trace System by phone, email or SMS, or via a notification in the app.

“Close contact” is defined in the UK as 15 minutes or more within two meters of an infected person.

British Health Minister Sajid Javid recently announced that from August 16, people fully vaccinated against Covid will no longer have to self-isolate if close contact tests positive for the coronavirus. The amendment to the directive would also apply to children under the age of 18.

Employee Absence Concerns

England will lift almost all remaining Covid restrictions on Monday in what will be an “irreversible” move, according to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Currently, however, the country is seeing a surge in new cases of the virus linked to the highly transmissible Delta variant.

There were 48,553 new cases of the virus in the UK on Thursday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the country since the pandemic started to 5,281,098.

Rising case numbers have raised concerns among industry leaders that the contact tracing system could lead to staff shortages.

Karan Bilimoria, president of the Confederation of British Industry – which represents 190,000 companies – said in a statement Thursday that the government should present the rule changes on self-isolation.

“Infection rates can rise rapidly, but it is clear that the testing and tracking system needs an overhaul as over two-thirds of the adult population are now fully vaccinated,” he said.

“As more and more companies prepare to open their doors on Monday, the shortage of staff is acutely felt in all sectors and in all lines of business, especially in our troubled hospitality and leisure sectors.”

Nick Allen, CEO of the British Meat Processors Association, told the BBC on Friday that some organizations could potentially be forced to close production lines, with up to one in ten meat production workers being told by the app to isolate themselves.

Meanwhile, it was reported on Monday that passengers flying from Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow Airport faced disruption after a number of NHS Test and Trace staff were instructed to isolate themselves.

Up to 900 workers – more than one in ten employees – at Nissan’s manufacturing facility in Sunderland, England, are currently absent after being “peded” by the app, the BBC reported on Thursday.

Delete the app

A survey by Savanta ComRes for the Guardian newspaper published Tuesday found that more than one in three adults ages 18 to 34 had already deleted the NHS app. According to the survey, roughly one in five adults of all ages said they intend to delete it within a week.

Government officials and health officials have urged the UK public not to delete the app.

A spokesman for the UK Health and Welfare Department emailed CNBC on Friday that the NHS Covid app prevented an estimated 600,000 infections and 8,000 deaths between September and December.

“The app does exactly what it was designed to do – it informs close contacts of someone who tests positive for Covid-19 that they are at risk and advises them to isolate themselves,” they said.

“As cases continue to rise, it is important that people are aware of their personal risk so that they can make informed decisions about their behavior to protect those around them.”

Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK health authority, said during a hearing of evidence in Parliament last week that work was being done to “tune” the app to take into account vaccination status.

“Right now, it’s important to remind people of the importance of keeping the app running,” she said.

The NHS app, which has been downloaded more than 26 million times, is not mandatory and there is no legal obligation for users to isolate themselves if they are “pinged”.

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