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Health Secretary Matt Hancock speaks during the daily briefing to update on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at 10 Downing Street, in London, United Kingdom June 8, 2020

Homegrown Covid-19 contact-tracing app ditched due to technical problems

Image credit: Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing Street/Handout

Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured above) has defended the Government’s switch from its homegrown Covid-19 contact tracing app to a system developed by Apple and Google, saying the new app will avoid the technological difficulties faced by the previous version.

The previous app, developed by NHSX, was already being tested in trials on the Isle of Wight, where over 50 per cent of the island’s inhabitants downloaded it in its first week of release.

The trial revealed some technological barriers for the homegrown app: while it worked well on Android phones, Apple’s more locked-down approach created difficulties, Hancock said.

Officials said the Government’s app was highly inaccurate when used on iPhones – only identifying around 4 per cent of contacts – while the Apple-Google framework recorded 99 per cent of all contacts.

Hancock noted that the NHSX-developed app was actually better at measuring distance than the Google-Apple model. One of the key concerns is about Bluetooth, which has variable range depending on environmental conditions. This could see the app linking users over-zealously to people far enough away that are not at risk or fail to pick up other nearby users.

Hancock said the solution was to work together to overcome the problems, adding: “We have agreed to join forces with Google and Apple to bring the best bits of both systems together. We will share our algorithm and the work that we have done on distance calculation and combine that with their work to deliver a new solution.”

No date has been set for the public rollout of the new app, despite the Health Secretary having previously said it would be available by mid-May.

“We’re not going to put a date on it, I’m afraid, because I’m absolutely determined that whilst this technology can help, it’s got to be working effectively,” Hancock said.

Dido Harding, head of the test-and-trace programme has described the app as the “cherry on the cake” of the overall test-and-trace system, playing down its centrality to the programme.

Yet figures for the second week of England’s test-and-trace showed that while over 85,000 people who had tested positive for the new coronavirus had been reached in the first two weeks, over 25 per cent of positive cases could not be reached.

The Labour party was critical of the Government's U-turn, saying that warnings about the homegrown app had not been heeded.

"This is unsurprising and yet another example of where the government’s response has been slow and badly managed. It’s meant precious time and money wasted," said Jon Ashworth, Labour health spokesman.

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