Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: The Short Life of the Test, Track and Trace App

In a long list of bad weeks for the government, which stretch back to the beginning of the corona virus pandemic, surely this week is a contender for the most embarrassing. Only two days ago the government was forced to U-turn on providing free school meals for children during the summer holiday, and yesterday the “world beating” Test Track and Trace app was abandoned.

On the 20th of May Bojo stated: “We have growing confidence that we will have a test, track and test operation that will be world-beating and yes it will be in place by June 1”. Well, Bojo’s statement hasn’t aged well – yesterday the app was scrapped. A successful test, track and trace app was deemed essential for any changes to social distancing to be safe, but the app has been troubled with problems and delays from the outset.

The app enjoyed a trial on the Isle of Wight at the start of May before its planned roll out to the rest of England by the beginning of June. However, that soon became mid-June. Then on Wednesday it emerged that it wouldn’t be ready until winter, with Lord Bethell, the minister responsible for the app, stating that the app was no longer a priority. Finally – after much dither and delay – the app, in its current form, has been ditched.

NHSX, a digital unit set up in 2019 and run in conjunction with the Department of Health and Social Care, was tasked with developing its own centralised contact-tracing app. From the outset NHSX has been criticised for diverging from a model curated by a joint effort between Apple and Google which utilised smartphone technology to help trace and contain the virus. The immediate problem with the UK’s app was concerning privacy: under the ‘centralised’ model, information and data is stored anonymously with the health service; in the ‘decentralised’ model, favoured by Apple and Google, no data is held on a single database.

Fears over privacy issues are justifiably compounded when you realise Matt Hancock appointed Baroness Harding as the chair of the Test and Trace programme, including the app. That is the same Baroness Harding who was chief executive of TalkTalk in 2015 when 4 million customers had their accounts and bank details hacked, subjugating them to years of scam callers. The same Baroness Harding who is a board member of the Jockey Club, an organisation which has donated to Hancock’s constituency office. The same Baroness Harding who is herself a Tory peer and whose husband is the Tory MP John Penrose – small world isn’t it?

The app had been designed to use Bluetooth signals from mobile phones to create a history of contacts which could be traced should any become infected. However, this approach clearly has some glaring issues: it only works with modern, fully charged smartphones. If you have an old phone, poor battery life or no phone you would have been excluded. Moreover, because NHSX ignored Apple’s privacy demands the app only recognised 4% of Apple phones. The Google/Apple alternative can identify 99% of phones!

In the end, in an embarrassing U-turn, the government has said it will switch to the model used by Apple and Google. Clearly it has all been a bit of a mess and an expensive one at that; Pivotal VMWare had been tasked to develop the app to the tune of three contracts worth £4.8m – money well spent!

With no new date for the launch of the app many will be wondering how much time has been lost already, and with the risk of a second wave on the horizon time really is of the essence.

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