NHS COVID-19 app estimated to have prevented 600,000 cases, says DHSC

Weekly data will soon be released alongside NHS Test and Trace data to create a better picture of how the UK is tracking COVID-19 and breaking the chain of transmission.
By Sophie Porter
02:33 pm
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NHS Covid-19 app, test and trace

A recent statement by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) claims the NHS COVID-19 app has alerted over 1.7 million users of potential exposure to the virus since its release in September.

This comes with the decision to start releasing regular data updates from the app from 18 February as part of the wider NHS Test and Trace data, which is already being reported weekly.

WHY IT MATTERS

The report highlights the efficacy of the COVID-19 app, which has been downloaded by more than 56% of the eligible population, with around 16.5 million people actively using the contact-tracing tool. It functions by sending alerts advising users to isolate who have been in close contact with someone who has since tested positive. These alerts can arrive in as quickly as 15 minutes of the result being logged, with researchers from the Turing Institute and Oxford University suggesting that the app may have prevented up to 600,000 new COVID-19 cases in five months.

Gaby Appleton, director of product for the app, highlighted the benefit of people downloading the app: “The more people who download the app the better it works, and now more than ever every new user makes a difference. For every one percent of additional users who download the app, we can potentially reduce the number of cases in the community by up to 2.3%.”

In order to increase its accuracy, the app is constantly improving and has gone through several updates since its launch. These include incorporating GAEN API Mode 2 into its risk assessment algorithm and making it interoperable with other contact-tracing apps, for example those available in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Alongside a symptom checker and test booking system, the app allows users to check-in at venues and includes a feature that identifies venues as “at risk” if there is an outbreak, triggering “warn and inform” alerts on user’s devices.

THE LARGER PICTURE

The NHS COVID-19 app got off to a relatively rocky start, experiencing a range of software glitches including “phantom alerts” and a bug which meant the system failed to send self-isolation alerts. There was also controversy around the lack of initial transparency of the app which was feared might exacerbate health inequalities.

At the time of publishing, England and Wales have reported more than 3.5 million confirmed cases since the pandemic began, with both countries currently in lockdown.

ON THE RECORD

Professor Mark Briers from the Alan Turing Institute said: “We have created a world-leading app, the first of its kind to be built on the latest GAEN API Mode 2 technology, which works to break chains of transmission and protect users against the spread of the virus while maintaining privacy and anonymity. Using the NHS COVID-19 app is the fastest way to know when you have been at risk of catching the virus and our analysis shows when more people download the app they can have a disproportionately positive impact on driving down case numbers in the community.”

In conversation with Healthcare IT News, Liz Ashall-Payne, CEO of ORCHA, the world’s leading health app evaluator, underlined what the adoption of the app meant for digital health more generally: “With 16.5 million people actively using the track and trace function, it is clear that digital is a platform the public want to engage with and does have a role to play as part of public health programmes. We believe this is a good example of how digital health can provide better understanding of population health generally and in this case the spread of the virus specifically.”

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