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Details released of second UK contact-tracing app development

Contractual documents show Zuhlke Engineering receiving an official start date of 6 May to supply a managed delivery team to support and run proximity mobile application and services for the UK

The UK government has published details of work being carried out on what could result in an alternative contract-tracing app to the one currently being tested on the Isle of Wight, in a contract worth £3.813m.

Just as UK communities secretary Robert Jenrick revealed to the media that the government would not rule out the possibility of adapting the app or creating a radically different one if appropriate, official details of work on a second app have been released.

The contract-tracing app that is being actively tested on the Isle of Wight works by using Bluetooth Low Energy technology to alert people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, so they can take action to protect themselves. Once installed, the app will start logging the distance between a user’s smartphone and other phones nearby that also have the app installed.

The anonymous log of how close users are to others will be stored securely on the user’s phone. If a user becomes unwell with symptoms of Covid-19, they can allow the app to inform the NHS which, subject to sophisticated risk analysis, will trigger an anonymous alert to other app users with whom the user has come into significant contact over the previous few days.

Yet almost as soon as the first details of the app’s capability were announced, critics weighed in with concerns over what it could achieve and whether the public could, or would, make representative use of it. Particular concerns were whether the app’s centralised nature would lead to privacy breaches and whether it would be any use at all though lack of user uptake.

Another worry was whether the centralised approach meant users’ phones would need to be in constant powered-on mode in order to functional correctly, unlike alternatives using decentralised technology from Apple and Google.

On 4 May, as reported by Computer Weekly, reports emerged that the London office of Switzerland-based IT development firm Zuhlke Engineering was actively working on a contact-tracing solution based on a decentralised model, using application programming interface (API) technologies developed by Google and Apple.

Official documents now confirm that this work is taking place. Days after NHSX, the NHS’s digital innovation unit, published technical details of the app under test on GitHub, the UK government has published details of a contract, NHSX Covid-19 App: Mobile App Development and Support in Live Phase, with Zuhlke Engineering.

The so-called alternative app began life through a collaboration between the NHS and VMware Pivotal Labs, before work was handed over to the Swiss outfit for support and ongoing development. The contractual documents show Zuhlke Engineering was given an official call-off start date of 6 May, ending 10 November 2020, to supply a managed delivery team to support and run the proximity mobile application and services for the UK and define an operating model and governance for the supplied team.

Read more about contact-tracing apps

The contract also calls for Zuhlke to: assist in existing production readiness activities and assist in V1 and V2 releases; build a product management and experience design capability to define and manage a long-term roadmap for future feature development; provide ongoing development, test and release of services and features; and lead a peer review.

In the contract, Zuhlke Engineering agrees to work in partnership with the NHS and its incumbent supplier, with a stated total cost for the daily rate charges under the call of contract totalling £3.813m.

Interestingly, although the offboarding plan for the call-off contract is for Zuhlke Engineering to complete its work and roll off within six months of the contract start date, as to be mutually agreed, the main terms of the contract also include a requirement to build a “transparent” product management and experience design capability to define and manage a long-term roadmap for future feature development.

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