The government has been forced to abandon a centralised coronavirus contact-tracing app after spending three months and millions of pounds on technology that experts had repeatedly warned would not work.
In an embarrassing U-turn, Matt Hancock said the NHS would switch to an alternative designed by the US tech companies Apple and Google, which is months away from being ready.
At the Downing Street briefing, the health secretary said the government would not “put a date” on when the new app may be launched, although officials conceded it was likely to be in the autumn or winter.
The idea behind the NHS app was that it could trace anybody that a person with coronavirus symptoms came into close contact with by using the Bluetooth connectivity on a standard smartphone, and notify them to self-isolate.
Ministers had insisted on using a centralised version of the untested technology in which anonymised data from people who reported feeling ill was held in an NHS database to enable better tracing and data analysis. This version was not supported by Apple and Google.
Work started in March as the pandemic unfolded, but despite weeks of work, officials admitted on Thursday that the NHS app only recognised 4% of Apple phones and 75% of Google Android devices during testing on the Isle of Wight.
That was because the design of Apple’s iPhone operating system is such that apps quickly go to sleep when they are not being used and cannot be activated by Bluetooth – a point raised by experts and reported by the Guardian in early May.
The Department of Health and Social Care refused to say how much had been spent on the effort, although official records show three contracts worth £4.8m were awarded to the developer VMWare Pivotal Labs for work on the app.
Silkie Carlo, the director of the privacy charity Big Brother Watch, said: “This just shows what a mess the centralised data-hungry approach was. Government was wrong to waste precious time and millions of pounds of public money on a design that everyone warned was going to fail, and now we’re back at square one.”Hancock had been particularly enthusiastic about the NHS app and had at one point said it would be “rolling out in mid-May” across England. Officials had denied the Apple-Google alternative was being evaluated, although on Thursday it was revealed that in fact work was going on to assess it from 6 May.
On Thursday, Hancock said the alternative was not ready either because it could not measure distance accurately. In some cases it cannot distinguish between phones 1 metre and 3 metres away – even though one is inside and one outside the current 2-metre physical distancing limit.
Experts say an app would be useful to track the potential spread from an infected person on public transport or in any other situation where they come into contact with people they do not know. But the distance measurement problem means it cannot be relied on to make decisions about who should self-isolate.
In the press briefing, Hancock tried to shift the blame on to Apple, saying: “So as it stands, our app won’t work because Apple won’t change their system, but it [the NHS app] can measure distance and their app can’t measure distance well enough to a standard that we are satisfied with.”
When asked whether he had unwisely stuck to the wrong approach, Hancock said: “I’m from Newmarket, we back both horses.” He went on to argue that testing the Apple–Google alternative for several weeks meant the government could make the leap from one system to another with confidence.
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