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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

UK Government downplays importance of contact-tracing app

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

Matt Hancock has downplayed the significance of the app still being developed as part of the test, track and trace plan, saying the public needed advice ‘given by human beings’ to get ‘confidence’ in the new system.

Speaking at the daily Downing Street press briefing yesterday (11 June), the health secretary said the delayed contact-tracing app would only be brought in “when it’s right to do so”.

Hancock said: “As we launched 'NHS Test and Trace', we were clear we want to embed this system and get confidence that people are following the advice that’s given by human beings before introducing the technological element”. 

The Government has rowed back on claims made when the app was first announced in mid-April, when it insisted the app would be central to its test, track and trace strategy. Originally, the app was due to be ready for a full countrywide rollout by late May.

Developed by NHSX, the technology arm of the NHS, the app is intended to send a notification warning to the smartphone's owner when they have come into close proximity with someone infected with Covid-19. It uses Bluetooth low energy (BLE) technology to determine when another app user, who has marked themselves as positive for the virus, is in close enough proximity to spread it.

On 3 May, transport secretary Grant Shapps said that it would be a “huge national effort” to get the public to download the app, saying “it will be the best possible way to help the NHS”. It was also thought that at least 60 per cent of the population was needed to download the app to make it effective. 

By the end of May, following a trial of the app on the Isle of Wight, ministers were keener to downplay its importance. Instead, they stressed the role of the thousands of human contact tracers recruited by the NHS. 

On 28 May, Hancock said: “The pilot on the Isle of Wight showed that the best thing to do was to introduce the human contact tracing and then build on that once people have got used to the idea that when the NHS Test and Trace system get in contact, you’ve got to do quite a big thing, which is to isolate for two weeks.”

In May, Apple and Google launched their toolkit, the Exposure Notification API, which helps public health agencies build privacy-focused contact-tracing apps. Meanwhile, NHSX experts admitted that the UK’s centralised contact-tracing app will only work on recent versions of the Apple and Android operating systems, thus cutting users with older phones completely out of the picture. 

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