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LONDON – UK contact tracking app downloads spiked last week, according to new data, despite widespread concerns about people being asked to self-isolate amid a surge in coronavirus cases.
The NHS Covid-19 app was downloaded 161,000 times in the week of July 11-17, according to analysis firm App Annie, up from 131,000 the previous week and 137,000 times from June 27 to July 3.
Meanwhile, weekly active users – defined as anyone who opens the app in a given week – stayed at 14.7 million for the weeks July 11-17 and July 4-10, compared with 14.4 million from June 27th to July 3rd.
This doesn’t mean that everyone who uses the app has the contact tracking feature turned on. Some may have disabled the feature.
Even so, it shows that engagement with the app is still strong, despite fears that more people will delete it to avoid self-isolation.
“Downloads have skyrocketed when an announcement depends on the usage of the app and then they tend to decrease, but usage has stayed strong week after week,” said Lexi Sydow, head of market insights at App Annie. opposite CNBC.
“Ultimately, usage will be a better measure of how people actually interact with the app.”
Millions of Britons could be pinged by the app over the summer after the country lifted its remaining Covid restrictions and the number of infections in the country increased.
More than 1.1 million people in England and Wales have been pinged from the app in the past two weeks.
Last Friday, the UK reported more than 50,000 new cases for the first time since mid-January. The daily cases have decreased somewhat since then, but are still on the order of tens of thousands.
What is contact tracking?
The NHS Covid-19 app was launched by the UK government last year to do traditional contact tracing – which involves notifying an infected person’s contacts – using technology.
The idea is that people will be informed if they have been around someone infected with the coronavirus and it is recommended that they isolate themselves to reduce the spread among the population.
The contact tracking app for England and Wales, like many others, uses Bluetooth to discover users who are nearby. If a user comes near a person who has tested positive, he is informed and asked to isolate himself.
This is controversial for businesses at a time when the UK is experiencing a resurgence of the Covid cases and England is lifting almost all remaining restrictions on public life.
According to the Chartered Institute of Personal and Development, 57% of HR professionals say they experienced a staff shortage in the past month because the app asked employees to self-isolate.
The app was originally introduced as a key part of plans to lift England’s lockdown restrictions at the start of the pandemic. More recently, however, the government is trying to downplay its importance.
A policy change is expected to go into effect on August 16, which means that those who have received two Covid vaccine syringes will be exempt from self-isolation if prompted by the app.
The government has also identified a list of workers who could avoid isolation even if exposed to the virus.
There are now doubts as to how effective the app will be in the future.
“The exposure notification app made sense at the start of the pandemic, when we had no vaccines and we had high deaths and hospital admissions,” Stephanie Hare, an independent technology researcher, told CNBC.
“The goal was to break the chain of transmission – to stop the virus from spreading – and all of our policies were aligned,” she added.
“Under Boris Johnson’s new policy for England, we are no longer trying to break the chain of transmission, making the exposure notification app less useful to society,” said Hare.
“It could still be useful to people who want to download and use it and would rather know if they’ve been exposed.”