NHS Covid app update expands symptom checklist and softens guidance for English users

Written by Sam Trendall on 28 June 2022 in News

Latest version of software removes suggestion users may have coronavirus and countdown clock – except for Welsh users, who are still told to isolated and get tested

Credit: Magica/Pixabay

The latest version of the NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app has expanded the number of symptoms in its checklist, but softened the guidance for English users who report possible coronavirus.

Until recently, the program’s ‘Check symptoms’ feature asked users if they were experiencing any of what have long been considered the three main symptoms of the virus: a high temperature; a persistent cough; or a loss or change to the senses of taste or smell.

Anyone who reported any of these symptoms was advised that: “You may have Covid-19”.

The app encouraged these users to “try and minimise contact with others” and, upon returning to the home screen, a three-day countdown clock – during which the user should “take care and protect others” – was displayed.

Since an update that took effect at the start of this month – and applied to those that give an English postcode as their location – the list of symptoms on the app’s checking feature has, alongside the cough and sensory changes, been greatly expanded to include: shortness of breath; feelings of tiredness or exhaustion; bodily aches; headache; sore throat; blocked or runny nose; loss of appetite; diarrhoea; and feeling sick or vomiting.

The feature then asks separately if the user has a high temperature, and also whether they “feel well enough to go to work or do your normal activities”.

The answers provided to the latter two questions seem to dictate the guidance then given by the program; if users answer that they have a high temperature, or that they do not feel well enough to go about their normal activities, the app advises that they should “try to stay at home and away from others” – but makes no mention of Covid-19.

Upon returning to the home screen, there is also no longer a countdown clock – or any indication that symptoms have been reported, nor any record of logged in the user data history that can be accessed via the app’s settings.

If users report that they are experiencing any of the symptoms listed, including a cough or a change to their senses – but do not have a high temperature and generally feel well enough to go about their day, the app responds that “you can continue with your normal activities”.

The feature functions markedly differently if a Welsh postcode has been provided as the user’s location.

In these cases, the app’s symptom-checker still asks users if they are currently experiencing any one of the three core symptoms and, if so, the date on which they began doing so.

Any Welsh users that report any of the three symptoms are told by the app that “you may have Covid-19” and are clearly told to “self-isolate for four days and get a Covid-19 test”.

This means that users in England reporting a persistent cough or loss of taste and smell are advised to “continue with your normal activities”, while reporting the same symptoms from the other side of the Welsh border results in an instruction to isolate and get tested. (pictured right)

Since the introduction of the updated symptom-checker for users in England, usage of the feature has increased sixfold; having previously fallen to about 2,000 instances a week, the most recent data shows that the new version of the feature was used about 11,650 times across England in the seven-day period to 8 June.

This could, in part, be attributed to a rise in coronavirus cases during the week: from a daily average of 5,500 at the beginining of the week, up to around 9,000 by the end. The number of exposure alerts issued by the app across England during the week in question stood at 62,827, compared with 43,922 in the prior week – although still a fraction of the peaks seen last year of almost 700,000 contact alerts per week.

The spike in usage could also partly be chalked up to some users having been confused by the removal of any record or indication of their symptoms being entered and, thus, entering them twice or more.

Contracts are in place to support delivery of the contact-tracing program until the end of this year, although it is not clear what the plans for the technology are beyond that, or whether it will remain in use.


About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology. He can be reached on sam.trendall@dodsgroup.com.


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