The British government on Thursday will finally launch its troubled smartphone app to help track the coronavirus in England and Wales, four months behind schedule and with cases surging to levels not seen since the peak of the first phase of the pandemic in May.
The COVID-19 app from the National Health Service (NHS) uses Bluetooth technology to alert users if they spend 15 minutes or more within two metres (six feet) of another user who subsequently tests positive for COVID-19.
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The government had said the app would arrive in May, but early trials were dogged by problems, and developers abandoned home-grown technology in favour of Apple and Google’s model in June.
The embarrassing U-turn followed warnings from tech experts that it would be less effective and that it should have switched to the Apple-Google software earlier.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the reworked tool was “an important step forward in our fight against this invisible killer”.
“We have worked extensively with tech companies, international partners, and privacy and medical experts – and learned from the trials – to develop an app that is secure, simple to use,” he said.
The Scottish government launched its own app earlier this month, while Northern Ireland rolled out its smartphone tracing tool in August.
However, some have questioned how effective the NHS app will be.
Independent charity the Health Foundation noted on the eve of its release that results from the testing programmes had yet to be published.
“Any data on the pilots that took place in August have been notably absent, leaving major questions over the app’s effectiveness unanswered,” it said.
Response under fire
Various coronavirus tracking applications that have emerged around the world – often relying on the same Apple-Google tech – have had mixed success to date.
Many have encountered challenges, from privacy concerns to technical glitches and disappointing take-up.
Confidence in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic has plummeted over the past few weeks, with the government under fire over the country’s struggling testing system.
There have been complaints of people being unable to get tests or being given appointments for testing centres hours from their homes, despite government claims of vastly increased capacity.
Ministers have blamed increased demand, including from schools after classes resumed in early September.
Johnson this week announced a host of new restrictions, including early closing times for pubs and – having earlier told people to return to their offices – working from home.
Britain on Wednesday recorded 6,178 new cases – the highest daily increase since May 1 when the country was still in a nationwide lockdown.
— Phillip Caudell (@phillipcaudell) September 23, 2020
British officials hope that between 10 and 30 percent of the population will download the English and Welsh app, in line with other countries’ experiences and the pilot tests, which they insist would help stem virus transmission.
The app generates a random ID for each user to protect privacy, and matches cases on the device rather than on a central server, as was the case in the initial version of the tool.
It will also enable users to book a COVID-19 test subject to availability, check symptoms, and register at venues using a QR-type barcode displayed by businesses.
The government launched a series of television commercials on Wednesday urging people to download the app with the tagline: “Protect your loved ones. Get the app.”