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UK contact-tracing app development leaders fail to reveal launch date

Described as not being a silver bullet on its own, the UK’s contact-tracing app is also a silver bullet that won’t be fired any time soon, as leaders of development project struggle to convince Lords committee of progress to date

The month of May has come and gone, so has June, and as the UK rolls into July and lockdown conditions are eased, there is still no sign of the country’s controversial Covid-19 contact-tracing app. Nor, as revealed by Baroness Dido Harding, who is leading the country’s track and trace programme, does there seem any likelihood of a launch any time soon.

Harding’s comments came as she was giving evidence to a House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on the recent overhaul of the contact-tracing strategy, which has been plagued by missteps since details of the contact-tracing app’s development were first aired in April 2020 and has fallen behind every launch target. In June 2020, it officially took a sea change in its form and will be developed using a decentralised data collection app model based on Google and Apple API technology, and not the hitherto much-criticised centralised structure which is still in test phase in the Isle of Wight.

When pressed by questions from the committee as to why the app project had been delayed so much, Harding defended the UK government’s progress so far, noting that it was imperative to launch a product that the public had faith in and that its fundamental reliance on Bluetooth technology was challenging, as it had been elsewhere.

“It’s not something that we think that anyone in the world has got working to a high enough standard yet to give us the confidence that [people] who receive another message telling them to isolate, why they can trust it,” she said.

“The most powerful tool that we all have in our hands as society opens up and gets back to normal is following social distancing. So, the more that we do that, we limit the number of close contacts that we will have while still getting back to a more normal way of life. And other than that, I’m afraid, I don’t think there is a silver bullet.”

After Harding set the expectation bar low, Simon Thompson, managing director of the NHS Covid-19 App for NHS Test and Trace at the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care, told the committee that when his department had a look at the particular benefits that the app can bring to the official Test and Trace programme as a whole, there were key areas that the developers were focusing on such as speed - that is, the ability to communicate with the users in minutes - and precision.

The latter ability has been under constant spotlight of late as reports have emerged of fundamental weaknesses in using Bluetooth technology to calculate accurate distances between app users who potentially could be carrying the virus.

Read more about contact-tracing apps

Thompson said that the app’s precision - which is the ability to have confidence around the distance and time - needed to be to a “really good standard” and that the work to date had been robust and that the correct decisions had been made, even the decision to dump the original mode and change to the decentralised model. He predicted that what would emerge when the app is launched will “definitely” be better than what a human could manage.

“The ability to know people that you have met who you did not know that you had met, we believe that the app can make real inroads there,” he said. “When we started the development of the original app, it’s worth bearing in mind that there was no Google/Apple API framework.

“And I’m pleased to say that the team absolutely made the right decision to start the parallel development of our original approach on the Google/Apple API. There are three elements that we believe the functionality needs to work to a really good standard. One of them is around contact reliability. [Another] is around distance and time measurement, these are critical inputs that are required to produce a reliable risk score. I’d like to say that we have learned an awful lot along the way. And by collaborating with both Google and Apple and many others around the world, we are really increasing our confidence that we will have something that citizens can trust.”

Yet despite these reassurances, the committee pressed Thompson on when exactly they would have an app that they could trust. He accepted the point, noting that in his opinion the introduction of the app was urgent and important. Yet in his answer to the direct question of when the app would be ready, Thompson reiterated that the work had to result in a product that the users could trust and stressed that he, four weeks into his role, was working with Bluetooth which he regarded as “really designed for distance”, and that his team had done some “excellent work” in being able to measure the probability of how close people are to each other.

Launch date

Pressed again on a potential launch date for the app, Thompson again did not give a specific date, nothing that this demurred, stating that this was a question he got asked on very frequent basis and that he could totally understand why it is that he was asked it. He apologised for repeating his earlier remarks.

“We really recognise that the introduction of the app is urgent and important, but it must be a product that the user can trust and really must work,” he said.

Offering her support, Harding implored the committee to recall that they would know from personal experience that often technology development paths “do not run in a smooth and linear way.” And for this reason, she said the development team “were keen not to commit to a specific date” as the technology development work was ongoing.

When asked what the developers had learned so far from the Isle of Wight trials of the app, Harding said that community engagement in the fight against Covid-19 was “really important” and that an app can galvanise local enthusiasm to fight the virus.

She claimed that take-up statistics to date were ‘very encouraging” with Thompson revealing that there had been 56,000 downloads, which equates to about 40% of the population of the Isle of Wight and 60% of the population with a compatible smartphone. When looking at such numbers globally, Thompson said that the only other country that gets close to that rate is  Singapore. “I think that based on our findings with the island, we should feel good about getting good levels of adoption,” he added.

Concluding her evidence, Harding gave context to previous comments from junior health minister Lord Bethell which noted that the contact-tracing app was essentially a “cherry on top of the cake” and not a priority in the context of the overall Test and Trace programme. She said the remark was made at the point of which the UK government was launching and scaling up the programme.

“I really do view this as a human service that is digitally assisted. So the digital element is important, but actually it’s not the core. The core is the scale testing platform for scale tracing the integration of experts on the ground in local communities with our clinical contact tracers and contact-tracing teams nationally,” she said. “The app can then accelerate. But if you don’t have that core first, the app on its own won’t work. It isn’t a silver bullet on its own.”

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