Pingdemic: These are your legal rights if you’ve been told to self-isolate by the NHS Covid app

·7 min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Despite the remaining lockdown restrictions having been lifted in England on Monday as the final stage of the Prime Minister's “roadmap to freedom”, an increasing number of people are being told to self-isolate by the NHS Covid app as the number of coronavirus cases across the country continues to soar.

In February, Boris Johnson said that the government’s plan to exit lockdown will be “cautious but irreversible”, but as coronavirus cases continue to rise, many are becoming concerned about restrictions being lifted too early.

On Tuesday, the government issued a statement to remind people that it is “crucial” they self-isolate when they’re alerted by the NHS app.

It comes as the UK recorded more than 46,000 new cases of coronavirus and 96 more deaths, marking the highest number of fatalities since March.

The latest data also shows that hospital admissions have been rising, with 745 Covid patients admitted to hospital on 14 July, while 4,500 were admitted in the last seven days, a weekly rise of 38.4 per cent.

As a result, an increasing number of people are being “pinged” by the NHS Covid app, with health secretary Sajid Javid warning that cases could reach 100,000 a day over the summer.

The NHS Covid app was designed to help test and trace efforts with regards to managing the pandemic and helping to reduce Covid infection rates.

It works by notifying people if they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus and asking them to self-isolate to prevent spreading the virus. The app uses Bluetooth to detect the distance between users and the duration of time spent in the potential exposure zone.

However, an increasing number of people have been deleting the app so as to avoid cancelling summer plans and trips abroad.

But what are the legal requirements surrounding this? Why is it important to self-isolate even if you don’t have coronavirus symptoms? And how long should you isolate for if you’re “pinged”? Here’s everything you need to know.

What is the ‘pingdemic’?

Recent figures show that more than 500,000 people in England and Wales were notified by the app to self-isolate in the week up to 1 July.

The term “pingdemic” refers to the increasing number of people who have been told to self-isolate by the NHS Covid-19 app.

Additionally, the R rate for England currently stands between 1.2 and 1.4, meaning that, on average, every 10 people infected will infect between 12 and 14 other people.

Despite Downing Street insisting that those who have been told to isolate must do so, business minister Paul Scully said earlier this week that self-isolating after being told to by the app was a decision for individuals and employers, referring to it as an “advisory tool” rather than a legal requirement.

In response, a Number 10 spokesperson said: “Isolation remains the most important action people can take to stop the spread of the virus.

“Given the risk of having and spreading the virus when people have been in contact with someone with Covid, it is crucial people isolate when they are told to do so, either by NHS Test and Trace or by the NHS Covid app.”

What is the difference between NHS test and trace and getting ‘pinged’ by the app?

While the government has stressed that those who have been pinged must self-isolate, it is not actually a legal requirement either to download the app or to self-isolated if pinged by it.

The NHS says: The NHS Covid-19 app is entirely voluntary and you can choose whether or not to download it. You can also uninstall and delete the app whenever you like.”

However, if you are contacted by NHS Test and Trace and told to self-isolate, it is a legal requirement to do so, with fines starting from £1,000 for those who fail to comply.

NHS Test and Trace works by contacting people who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.

When you test positive, you are required to provide details of your close contacts in the last nine days, starting 48 hours before you experienced symptoms.

This includes anyone you have spent at least 15 minutes with, at a distance of less than two metres, sexual partners, people they live with or have had face-to-face conversations with, at a distance of less than one metre.

These contacts are then contacted by text, email or phone. People who are contacted in that way will be told to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms.

You will then be advised to get a test to see if you have coronavirus. If your test is positive, you must complete the remainder of your 10-day self-isolation. Anyone in your household must also complete self-isolation for 10 days from when you started having symptoms.

If your test is negative, you will no longer be required to self-isolate, though you may wish to do so if you still feel unwell and have symptoms similar to Covid-19.

How long should you isolate for if you’re ‘pinged’?

If you are told to self-isolate by the NHS app, it will tell you how long you should isolate for.

The length of time can be up to 10 days. People who have Covid-19 are most infectious around the time they first develop symptoms. 10 days into an infection, data shows that only about 2 per cent of people will pass on the virus to others.

Why it’s important to isolate even if you don’t have Covid symptoms

It’s crucial that people isolate if they’re told to by the NHS app regardless of whether or not they have coronavirus symptoms.

This is because more than half of people with Covid-19 are asymptomatic, according to the latest data.

In April, the ONS said 53 per cent of people with a strong positive, or high viral load, between December 2020 and March 2021 did not report having any symptoms compared to 47 per cent who did. It excluded patients likely to be at the start of their infection when transmission and symptoms are thought to be less likely.

Fatigue, headache and cough were the most commonly reported symptoms among people who had a strong positive test for Covid-19. However, the reported symptoms for those who have been vaccinated include sneezing, a runny nose, a sore throat and a headache, according to a recent study, while the reported symptoms for the Delta variant - currently the dominant strain in the UK - are similar to those resulting from the common cold or the flu.

Can employers ask you to come to work if you’ve been ‘pinged’?

The “pingdemic” has sparked concerns among some employers due to the increasing levels of staff absences.

Ports, for example, are experiencing significant levels of absences, with reports as high as 10 per cent in some areas and many businesses have warned about having to change their closing times in order to adapt.

Frontline health workers are exempt from self-isolation in exceptional circumstances but the guidance still applies to all other workers. However, Downing Street announced on Wednesday that it has not ruled out extending test and trace exemptions to fully vaccinated supermarket workers.

From 16 August, those who have had both of their vaccination doses will not need to self-isolate.

The Prime Minister’s spokesperson said: “It’s not a blanket exemption and my understanding is we’re not going to be producing a list covering individual sectors, these business-critical areas will be able to apply for exemptions to their host departments.

“There won’t be a list covering individual sectors... it’s important that anyone who feels they’re in a critical industry or wants to raise potential issues because of isolation are able to contact departments and get advice and where necessary get exemptions.’’

Given that everyone who has been “pinged” has been told it is “crucial” that they self-isolate in order to reduce the spread of coronavirus, employers should not be asking people to go to work if they have been told to isolate. However, the legality around this remains hazy.

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