‘COVID hasn’t gone away’: Warning over shutdown of NHS COVID app

For more than two years, the NHS COVID App dictated the lives of those living in the UK – it told us which counties were safe to travel into, who people could spend Christmas with, and how close the public could get to their loved ones.

But now, on Thursday 27 April 2023 it is being switched off for the final time.

No more “getting pinged“, or needing a bar code to enter a restaurant. The app is estimated to have saved thousands of lives and stopped millions of infections but now the fight against the virus enters a new phase and it is no longer needed.

Germany’s health minister has already declared the pandemic over, while the US president has signed a bill terminating the country’s national emergency response to the virus.

But while some may hail it as another step on the road to the end of the pandemic, for half a million clinically vulnerable people in the UK, COVID can still be life-threatening.

From tennis prodigy to long COVID sufferer

Three years ago, Tanysha Dissanayake was a tennis prodigy who played alongside Emma Radacanu in junior Wimbledon.

Then the COVID virus forced her into early retirement, and out of education: “It was stripped away from me overnight.”

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Long Covid: ‘I’m grieving my life’

At one point, her heart rate reached 150bpm when just walking up the stairs.

“I have come a long way since a year ago. A year ago I couldn’t even open my eyes to watch Netflix,” Tanysha said.

“But in terms of my life, and my full recovery, I am still so far away from where I need to be.”

The virus has left her unable to study, read and socialise and grieving the loss of her former, very active, life.

“I can’t walk more than 2m, I need my little brother to push me around in a wheelchair,” she said.

“That was not a life I was ever prepared for. I was 19 and healthy.”

How the NHS COVID app came to dominate British life

The app was touted as an integral part of the UK’s Test and Trace but experienced a series of setbacks prior to its launch.

Development began in March 2020, but after an initial trial run on the Isle of Wight in May 2020, the first version of the app was abandoned due to technical failings.

The government announced it would work with Apple and Google to develop a new version of the app. This was finally launched to the wider public in September 2020 and was downloaded more than 21 million times, with 1.7 million users advised to self-isolate following close contact with someone with COVID.

At the height of the “pinging”, businesses complained it was causing severe staff shortages and unnecessary chaos, but expert analysis found the app to largely be effective in telling people to self-isolate. It was eventually tweaked to ‘”ping” fewer people.

It soon became integral to British pandemic life – it was needed to board flights, enter bars and restaurants, and store essential COVID vaccine information.

The cost of the app was estimated to top £35 million.

‘I feel forgotten – people have moved on without me’

She is now worried about the disappearance of the official NHS COVID app and what it means for her to be able to interact in public.

“It scares me so much,” she said, adding that she is terrified to catch the virus again, fearing it could set back her recovery by another year.

“I can understand needs and want to move on from COVID, because it was a traumatic thing for everyone, but people are forgetting about it, and it’s being labelled as something that’s not dangerous at all,” she said.

Now 21, she said she feels she is “stuck as a 19 year old”.

It takes her up to a week to prepare to leave the house.

Tanysha added: “My life has been on hold for two years and people have moved on without me and I am still here.”

‘I thought the app had already closed down’

Although hospital levels are not the same as they were during the peak of the pandemic, for patient Nicola Macarty, any new infection could kill her.

The 59 year old got COVID for the second time last week and collapsed in the shower, unable to breathe.

“People are still very ill will COVID,” she said, speaking from her hospital bed.

But she was unaware the app had still been operating until this point.

“I honestly thought the app had gone years ago,” she said. “I didn’t realise the app was still there.”

But for Imogen Dempsey, who is clinically ill, the end of the app feels like an effort to ignore the realities of the new phase of the pandemic.

“Everybody is tired and fed up and could do without having to talk about COVID anymore,” she said.

“[But] for people like me, the fact that we still need to think about being so careful and our lives are still so much on hold, absolutely we’d like things to be different – but they’re not.

“COVID hasn’t gone away, and stopping recording it and trying to ignore it isn’t actually a public health strategy.”

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How the app was tweaked to ping fewer people

COVID wards still operating

Frimley Health still operates specific COVID wards, first introduced in 2020 in a bid to stop patients from spreading the infection around the hospital.

John Seymour, deputy medical director at Frimley Health, said: “Living with COVID is an acceptance it is here, it will always be here.

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“But we have a responsibility to continue providing healthcare.”

He said people will “always come in with COVID, or problems related to COVID”.