NHS boss warns patients going untreated as COVID app forcing so many medics into isolation

A notification issued by the NHS coronavirus contact tracing app - informing a person of the need to self-isolate immediately, due to having been in close contact with someone who has coronavirus - is displayed on a mobile phone in London, during the easing of lockdown restrictions in England. Picture date: Friday July 16, 2021. (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
Record numbers of people are receiving 'pings' from the NHS COVID app. (Getty)

The NHS coronavirus app is now “pinging” so many doctors and nurses that patients are going untreated, a leader has warned.

Chris Hopson, CEO of NHS Providers – which represents hospital, mental health, community and ambulance services – said the issue needs to be dealt with “as a matter of urgency”.

Health bosses in Sunderland, meanwhile, have even asked staff to postpone holidays as the trust comes “under extreme pressure” due to a surge in COVID-19 admissions.

The NHS app sent a record 520,194 alerts in England in the seven days to 7 July, with people told to complete a 10-day self-isolation period.

Hopson, quoted in The Times on Friday, said hospitals are “particularly worried about the growth in numbers of staff isolating”, which is "impacting on their ability to deliver care".

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As coronavirus hospital numbers continue to grow – 3,933 patients were admitted in the week up to 11 July, up 47% on the previous seven days – Hopson said balancing routine and COVID care “is becoming increasingly difficult with large numbers of staff unable to work”.

Ministers are concerned about the scale of the problem ahead of so-called "freedom day" on Monday, when they will end England's lockdown and drop virtually all legal mitigations against the virus.

With health secretary Sajid Javid having previously admitted cases are likely to reach 100,000 a day over the summer, Downing Street is examining whether the app could be made less sensitive to reduce the numbers being pinged, though a final decision has yet to be made.

The number of people self-isolating is causing chaos for staff in hospitals. (PA)
The number of people self-isolating is causing chaos for staff in hospitals. (PA)

Dr Kit Yates, a member of the Independent Sage group which scrutinises government policy, criticised this concept, suggesting it would be the equivalent of taking the batteries out of a fire alarm.

Last week, the government announced plans for fully-vaccinated people, as well as under-18s, to be spared self-isolation if they come into contact with a COVID carrier. However, this will only come into force in a month's time, on 16 August.

Staff at South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust were told in an internal memo that its services are "under extreme pressure", with medics asked to take additional shifts and delay pre-booked annual leave if possible.

As well as medics, there are major concerns about the number of workers being forced to self-isolate, including in the struggling hospitality industry as well as factories.

Sir Jonathan Montgomery, professor of healthcare law at University College London, said that being pinged by the app should be a tool used to “help us manage the risk” rather than always being required to self-isolate.

“The ping should help us manage the risk and think about it,” he told LBC on Friday. “It shouldn’t become a yes or no thing, you are either locked up in home or you are out and about.”

COVID app alerts are surging. (PA)
COVID app alerts are surging. (PA)

The Daily Telegraph has reported even neighbours of coronavirus cases have been told to self-isolate because the app can trace people through walls.

“We are hearing of anecdotal cases and we do know that it is possible for the signal to travel through walls, although it is weakened,” a source close to the Test and Trace team told the newspaper.

This is despite NHS advice about the app stating: "Bluetooth signal strength is reduced through walls and therefore less likely to satisfy the necessary criteria."

Solicitor General Lucy Frazer told Sky News on Friday that the government is "carrying out a number of pilots to see whether instead of isolating when you get pinged, you could take a test".

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