Hundreds of thousands of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are not using the NHS contact tracing apps to alert their close contacts, despite the outbreak of the Omicron variant, new figures reveal.
In Scotland less than 20% of people who have downloaded the contact tracing app are using it to inform people that they have tested positive.
The Scottish government recently announced that contacts of infected people must isolate until they can take a PCR test, and the app is a key way of alerting them.
In England and Wales it’s estimated only half of people who have the app are using it to alert their contacts of a positive result.
The NHS contact tracing apps (which are separate to the NHS app which shows vaccination status) are a vital plank in the government’s response to the pandemic.
When someone tests positive via a PCR test, they can opt to use the app to send a “ping” to other app users who have spent a substantial time within a few metres of them in the preceding days.
The numbers reached a peak during the so-called “pingdemic” of late July, when more than 600,000 were sent out in a single week, but have since fallen to a third of that total.
Those who receive an alert can take measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
In Scotland, where the Omicron variant was first detected in the UK, anyone exposed to an infected person must now isolate, and can only end isolation if they receive a negative PCR test result and are double-vaccinated.
Alerts from the app should form a significant part in this system, tipping people off to the fact they must stay indoors.
Yet figures from NHS Scotland show that the majority of coronavirus victims in Scotland who have the app are not using it to send alerts.
Just under half the population have downloaded the app – 2.3 million people out of a total population of 5.5 million.
Given the number of cases in Scotland, that should mean 9,000 people per week using the app to tip off their contacts. In fact the figure is around 1,500.
In England and Wales, according to government figures, take-up of the app is also around 50% of the population.
The government’s data dashboard shows there are around 300,000 people testing positive per week (though this figure is rising), and therefore one would expect to see around 150,000 people sending pings to their close contacts. The figure is roughly half that.
Public reluctance to use the app is worrying for medical professionals, who see the technology as a pivotal tool to reduce the spread, especially as the more infectious Omicron strain becomes dominant.
Close contacts of infected people may still be alerted by other aspects of the tracing system, such as a phone call or text message from NHS Test and Trace. But the app offers a widespread, simple and less labour-intensive way to get the word out.
A UK Health Security spokesperson said the app has prevented thousands of coronavirus cases.
A spokesperson for the Scottish government said that weekly contact figures and the uploading of test results are increasing week by week. Both encouraged all app users to upload their test results.