To the surprise of nobody, the government has reversed its plans for the NHS contact-tracing app, switching from its initial centralised model to the decentralised version supported by Google and Apple, and adopted by most countries developing a similar system.
The move follows two regular recent patterns in Boris Johnson’s administration – repeated policy u-turns, and following what everyone else is doing about the coronavirus crisis weeks after everyone else did so. This truly is a government driven by British exceptionalism, hubris and PR.
To be fair to those involved in the contact-tracing app, the shift in strategy was acknowledged as a possibility from the start. NHSX chief executive Matthew Gould said at the launch: “As it develops, if we think there is a better way of doing what we need to do, we won’t hesitate to change”. But he and others also repeatedly justified the centralised approach as being the best.
Any number of articles were written explaining the technical challenges faced by a contact-tracing app that didn’t use the APIs developed by Google and Apple to support a more privacy friendly decentralised system. NHSX and developer VMware Pivotal Labs thought they had found a workaround, but it seems that trials on the Isle of Wight proved it was not reliable enough.
This about-turn may still not make the app into a viable proposition. Even in those countries that have launched decentralised apps, the core functional concept of using Bluetooth for proximity tracking of phone users remains unproven at scale. Isle of Wight residents reported phones detecting signals through the walls between neighbours, kicking off a cascade effect down whole streets. It may yet be that Bluetooth is simply not up to the job and a different – and more controversial in data-gathering terms – method involving GPS might be needed. It may also be the case that here, technology is simply not a workable solution at all – at least, not without making huge and potentially unpalatable compromises on data privacy.
But perhaps the most nonsensical aspect to all this is the amount of global duplication. How many countries have developed their own app to perform essentially an identical function? The UK app is available on GitHub as open source, as is the decentralised German app, launched this week, as is the Singapore equivalent. Surely the whole point of publishing open source versions is so others can use them? Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales even suggested that people in the UK download the German app anyway. “If the government can’t pull themselves together, we can,” he wrote on Twitter.
Forget for a moment about the technicalities. Even if a UK app does get as far as national roll-out, after this latest farrago the government faces a growing hurdle in persuading an increasingly sceptical public to even bother.