UK’s coronavirus contact-tracing app still delayed after Government U-turn

The Government is set to announce it has abandoned its current efforts developing a contact-tracing app and is pivoting towards a method developed by Apple and Google.

The change will see the app switch from a 'centralised' model to a 'decentralised' one that has privacy benefits for users.

According to The Guardian, officials have claimed that the current app is impossible to implement without conforming to the Apple/Google model but the Government is also not entirely happy with that model and wants to work with the tech firms to develop a “third way”.

The previously developed app 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.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at the start of May that the app would be rolled out nationwide in “mid-May”.

But since then there has been radio silence about the launch, with a survey also showing that nearly half (48 per cent) of the British public do not trust that the app will keep their data safe from hackers.

Yesterday, speaking to the Science and Technology Committee prior to the U-turn, the minister responsible for the smartphone app, Lord Bethell, admitted that it was not a priority for NHSX, the digital arm of the NHS.

“We’re seeking to get something going before the winter, but it isn’t the priority at the moment,” he said.

He added that the government did not want to be pressured into releasing something that was not “quite right”.

“There is a danger of being too technological and relying too much on texts and emails and alienating or freaking out people, because you’re telling them quite alarming news through quite casual communication,” he said.

The daily number of deaths and new cases of Covid-19 in the UK has more than halved since mid-May when the app was originally slated for release. The government also relaxed lockdown rules at the beginning of June, sparking fears among some experts that a second wave of cases could occur.

Lord Bethell said that human-led contact-tracing was a current priority. “The call centres we have put together actually have worked extremely well,” he said.

“We have had to deal with people working from home on new computer systems, but the effectiveness has been proven and we are confident about that. That’s where our focus is at the moment.”

Speaking of the current number of people being identified by the NHS Test and Trace, Lord Bethell said there is a gap between the number of people who test positive and those referred to the tracers.

“We are working on closing that gap,” he added.

He was also asked whether the government would look at legislating to protect people if the uptake of the app was poor.

“Yes,” he responded, “there will be an ongoing battle to convince people that this app is safe and protects their privacy and we are super-conscious of that.

“And I can’t stress enough how much effort has been put into ensuring that the software and the governance, and the way in which the app is constructed, protects privacy and thoughtfulness.”

This story was updated after publication to reflect the fact that the Government has today decided to take a different approach to developing the app. 

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