UK government criticised for 'huge mistake' in defunding Covid alert system

Money for Zoe symptom app is cut and there are fears England will be left blind to new virus variants

The UK government has chosen a 'learn to live with Covid' strategy, and the Zoe app has become a casualty. Getty

The founder of the Zoe Covid study has said the British government's decision to withdraw funding from the coronavirus symptom monitoring app is a “huge mistake".

“We’re incredibly disappointed that the [UK Health Security Agency] has decided not to renew funding of the [study]," Prof Tim Spector told The National.

“Since the start of the pandemic, Zoe has been at the forefront of critical scientific discoveries which have saved lives. It’s proven that our million-strong community of citizen scientists can help to achieve accurate symptom and case predictions, as well as contribute to more than 40 published scientific papers."

In the early stages of the pandemic, the app was instrumental in alerting policymakers to loss of smell and taste as indications of an infection.

Prof Spector said he is baffled that such a valuable tool was put aside by Westminster.

“We believe that not renewing the funding is a huge mistake for the UK and for science," he said.

“The UKHSA has acknowledged that the pandemic isn’t over yet, so, for them to take this decision is both a surprise and disappointment."

Learning to live with it or forgetting it exists?

The decision was taken against the backdrop of a near weekly doubling of confirmed Covid case numbers in the UK, and the emergence of the Deltacron variant in Europe and the US.

UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the increase was a natural consequence of the UK's transition to a “learning to live with it" strategy.

This involves ending all coronavirus restrictions and dismantling testing and tracking infrastructure such as the weekly Office for National Statistics infection study as of April, widely regarded as the most accurate measure of Covid prevalence.

Critics say the government's approach is reckless and leaves the UK effectively blind to infection levels and new coronavirus variants.

Proponents say it is proportionate with the threat posed by the virus in a largely vaccinated population.

The latter position was superficially corroborated by a Financial Times study last week which suggested that, for the first since the pandemic began, fewer people in the UK infected with Covid die than those infected with flu.

However, in a caveat, the authors pointed out that despite Covid's vaccine-driven attenuation, ONS data showed that 9,641 people have died from a respiratory disease since the beginning of the year in the UK – double the number in a typical flu season.

Given the UK National Health Service's struggle with winter illness before the pandemic began, a situation where this load is doubled every year will create significant logistical and economic difficulties.

Zoe to continue without government support

Scientists such as Prof Spector believe that instead of the “pretend it doesn't exist" approach which brought an end to funding for Zoe and the ONS studies, the government should be taking the opposite tack.

“I do think we need a more global monitoring, not only of the genetics … but also like the Zoe app of symptoms, so people can see when something funny is happening and investigate,” he told The National in February when discussing the possibility Covid can be treated like flu.

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With the help and support of our loyal loggers, we will continue to track both the symptoms and spread of the Covid pandemic
Prof Tim Spector, Zoe app founder

“I think we just haven't devoted really any money to this kind of stuff in the past.”

His words then seem prophetic and ironic now, although he is hopeful that the Zoe app can continue.

“[We are] committed to continue running even without government funding and … our parent company, Zoe, the personalised nutrition company, will fund it in the short term while we look into other ways to secure the future of the study.

“With the help and support of our loyal loggers, we will continue to track both the symptoms and spread of the Covid pandemic, as well as investigate other chronic health conditions using the same pioneering technology in the app.”

Updated: March 15, 2022, 4:50 PM