Can Boris and his ministers agree on the point of the Covid app?

21 July 2021

7:51 AM

21 July 2021

7:51 AM

What is the point of the Covid-19 app? Ministers seem to be as in the dark about the answer to this question as the rest of us, with the government tying itself in knots over whether it means anything at all to get ‘pinged’ and told to self-isolate.

Downing Street has contradicted Business Minister Paul Scully, who said this morning that there was no need to self-isolate if it was just the app that alerted you. He told Times Radio:

‘The app is there to give…to allow you to make informed decisions. And I think by backing out of mandating a lot of things, we’re encouraging people to really get the data in their own hands to be able to make decisions on what’s best for them, whether they’re an employer or an employee.’ 

But a couple of hours later, a No. 10 spokeswoman insisted that isolation was ‘the most important action people can take’, adding:

‘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. Businesses should be supporting employees to isolate, they should not be encouraging them to break isolation.’

The problem is that both Scully and the spokeswoman are technically right. There is no legal requirement for people to obey the app when it tells them they need to self-isolate, and it does not share their data or location with Test and Trace in an identifiable way, which means there is no knowing whether they are indeed staying at home. This is not the same as being contacted by Test and Trace, which is legally enforceable. This has always been the case, but ministers and officials have chosen to elide the difference.

The curious thing is that Scully chose to freelance now, when the government is so worried that people might take full advantage of the freedoms available to them and that infections might therefore go up even more.

Perhaps the clue comes in his job title: his direct concern is the effect on businesses of the sheer number of instructions to self-isolate. Up to this point, most of the comms confusion on infection control measures such as the travel list has come from a basic lack of understanding about what the government has actually decided to do.

In this instance, it seems that there is a genuine schism in Whitehall between those who are worried that the virus will get even more out of control, and those who fear the country is about to come to a standstill as part of attempts which are largely in vain to contain it.

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