Contact-tracing app tests on the Isle of Wight show that technology is not the solution

The NHSX contact-tracing app has been in live testing on the Isle of Wight for over a week now, and already we can make one important conclusion – a conclusion that was surely self-evident anyway. Technology is not the panacea for getting the UK out of lockdown.

Someone in government said that “something must be done”, and the contact-tracing app has become that something being done, when in reality it is nothing more than one small part of the solution.

According to government minister Grant Shapps, more than half of the residents on the Isle of Wight have downloaded the app – 72,300 out of 140,000 people, as of yesterday (14 May). That’s an impressive response. When the app was launched, we learned that for it to be effective across the UK, around 60% of the UK population would need to use the app to help combat the spread of Covid-19, according to experts at the University of Oxford Big Data Institute.

You could, optimistically, say that the IoW experience shows that’s possible. But in this limited, high-profile trial, the numbers cannot be taken as emblematic of a wider roll-out. In Singapore – a country arguably more used to responding to government diktats – barely 20% of residents downloaded the local contact-tracing app.

Indeed, Matt Gould, CEO of NHSX, the digital arm of the NHS that’s leading the UK’s app development, has said he would be pleased if we reached that Singapore level of take-up across the UK.

So what can we learn anecdotally from the IoW trial? Computer Weekly talked to one of our readers who lives there – an experienced IT leader. His time using the app already demonstrates the challenges for a wider roll-out.

For a start, there have been instances of false positives where residents live next door to an NHS or care worker. The Bluetooth proximity tracing can pass through walls – so if you’re sitting safely on your sofa on one side of the wall, with your neighbour on the other, the app picks that up as a contact. Our insider reports instances of cascades of contacts being picked up along a street as a result of such an incident.

He reports problems with battery use and Google Play Store downloads while using the app. And he says the design and functionality is pretty basic. But as he points out, any bugs or technology issues are easy to fix. The bigger issue is nothing to do with the app.

“The fundamental problem is nothing to do with the technology, but the reality that even on a closed environment like the Isle of Wight, the testing, tracing and isolation needs to ramped up. If you can’t do that here on a small scale, how on earth is it going to be effective for the whole country?” he said.

I’ve watched a lot of discussions taking place on social media, in newspapers and on TV about the app. We’re all talking about the app, and whether it will work, and the privacy issues, and the centralised or decentralised nature of the design. Plenty of people still seem to dismiss the app because they think it was developed by “Dominic Cummings’ mate” which is plain wrong – it was created by VMware Pivotal Labs. You can’t get much more solid, boring, safe, enterprise-focused IT than that (with all due respect to project leader Joe Baguley and his team).

That’s all important, but it’s a distraction – and one the government surely welcomes to keep the conversation away from its failings elsewhere.

The app has become the “something must be done” of contact tracing. It was never the case – should never be the case – that the app is the core of the government’s strategy. It is, hopefully, a tool that will help for a proportion of the population – 20% would be a success.

But it’s no substitute for what’s really needed – and that’s the physical and human infrastructure of a national testing, tracing and isolation programme of the type that has made the likes of South Korea, Vietnam and Germany the exemplars for managing Covid-19.

There are still plenty of issues to resolve around the app, from the technology to privacy, data gathering to legislation. These are all important conversations to be had.

But let’s not allow those discussions to hide the real issue at stake – that technology is not the answer. Only an effective UK-wide testing and contact-tracing programme – which should have been a major priority when the pandemic first hit the UK – will get us out of lockdown.

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