Isle of Wight contact tracing app notice

Contact-tracing app does not work on some phones, NHSX admits

Image credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The NHSX expert leading the development of the UK’s contact-tracing app has admitted that it will only work on recent versions of the Apple and Android operating systems.

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, contact tracing involves tracking down people who have been in proximity to a person with Covid-19 and who could have been infected. Manual contact tracing played an important part in the response of some governments - including the Taiwanese government - to the coronavirus pandemic. A contact-tracing app uses Bluetooth to record contacts, who are notified if they may have been exposed to the virus.

Many European countries are in the process of developing their own contact-tracing apps as one aspect of the efforts to reduce transmission rates as nations move towards easing lockdown restrictions. The UK is notable for having decided to pursue a centralised model – in which records are stored on a centralised server – rather than the decentralised model favoured by most other European countries, supported by a privacy-focused API developed by Google and Apple. The UK government claims that centralising records will allow the NHS to extract valuable insights from app users, such as detecting potential outbreak hotspots.

The development of this contact-tracing app has attracted searing criticism from privacy activists for several reasons: for instance, due to NHSX stating that users will not be able to request that their personal data is deleted from the centralised server, as it will have become too "enmeshed" with other data. The app has also attracted criticism for its technical shortcomings: among other issues, it was reported last week that the app had failed every test required for apps to be included in the NHS Apps Library, including cyber security, performance and clinical safety tests.

Now, as the app is being trialled on the Isle of Wight, the representative leading the development of the app has acknowledged that the app cannot run on many phones.

Dr Geraint Lewis admitted that the app will only work with phones which have the capability to run Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and have at least Apple's iOS 11 or Google's Android 8 software installed. This is likely to exclude older phones, as well as some Huawei devices.

Lewis was speaking on BBC Radio Solent; some listeners contacted the radio station to say that the app was not working on their (older) devices.

“There are three reasons why the app might not work on a particular smartphone. It’s either the development team has not got around to supporting that particular phone,” he said. “The second reason is if the phone itself doesn’t have this thing called Bluetooth Low Energy in it - certain older phones don’t have BLE - and that’s the piece of technology we use to measure distance between phones.”

“The third reason is the operating system. We currently support iOS version 11 and upwards and Android version 8 and upwards, so if you can update the operating system that should hopefully help.”

In response to a listener complaint that the app drained their phone battery – a strong concern, particularly among iPhone users – Lewis said that the app had been designed to be low energy. He also explained that Android phones requested permission to use location services because these are bundles with Bluetooth permissions. “It is not a tracking app,” he said.

Reports have emerged that the government could be positioning itself to pivot to a decentralised model – in which data is stored and processed on individuals’ phones – following wide-ranging criticism from experts, campaigners and lawmakers over the centralised model. Public support for the prevailing contact-tracing app will be a crucial factor in deciding whether or not to go ahead with the centralised model, as a large proportion of people - approximately 60 per cent of the UK population - will need to download and use the app in order for it to prove useful.

Zühlke Engineering, the consultancy which has been working on the NHSX app since March, has been contracted to undertake a “technical spike” to investigate implementing Apple and Google’s privacy-focused API.

Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick denied that the government is already working on an alternative app, but said: “We are paying attention to the other apps that exist elsewhere in the world and if we need to adapt our app or move to a different model, obviously we will do.”


This article was edited on 12 May 2020. The original article indicated that some Huawei devices do not run the app on account of OS compatibility issues; E&T has been informed that these ongoing complications are not related to OS compatibility.

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