Johnson claims no country yet has a ‘functional contact-tracing app’ during PMQs grilling

Written by Matt Honeycombe-Foster and Sam Trendall on 25 June 2020 in News

The prime minister overlooked 22 other nations that have launched tracking technology as Keir Starmer turned up the heat

Credit: House of Commons/PA Wire/PA Images

Boris Johnson has accused Keir Starmer of making “misleading” claims about the UK’s coronavirus track and trace programme — as the prime minister argued that no other country had a functioning Covid-19 app.

The government announced last week that it was scrapping the contact-tracing app developed by NHSX and would be pursuing a program built on the system jointly developed by Apple and Google. 

During prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, the Labour leader demanded to know when this software would be up and running. He pointed to Germany – which launched its app last, having first made the same switch from its own tech to the Apple-Google framework – as a country that had already sorted a track and trace smartphone system.

The Labour leader had been challenged by the PM to “name a single country in the world that has functional contact tracing app — because there isn’t one”.

To which Starmer replied: “Germany. App working 15 June — 12 million downloads.”

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He added: “The health secretary said we’d have the app by mid-May. The prime minister said we’d have it by 1 June. Now the government ministers say it won’t be ready until the winter.”

Johnson insisted his Labour counterpart was "completely wrong" to point to Germany as an example.

Others Starmer could perhaps have cited include Singapore which, having launched its TraceTogether program more than three months ago, was the first to roll out a national smartphone contact-tracing system. Other governments that have since launched a such an app – albeit with varying levels of success – include Australia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, China, Colombia, France, Ghana, Hungary, Iceland, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

‘A false impression’
Recently published government figures showed that, during the first two weeks of the Test and Trace programme, about 14,000 people that had tested positive for coronavirus were referred to the manual contact-tracing system. Tracers were unable to get in contact with more than one in four of these people.

Starmer pointed to figures from the government’s daily press conference slides showing that 33,000 people are currently estimated to have Covid-19 in the country.

And he claimed that the latest track and trace figures suggest that “two-thirds of those with Covid-19 are not being contacted”.

“This is a big gap and the prime minister risks making the mistakes he made at the beginning of the pandemic - brushing aside challenge, dashing forward, not estimating properly the risk,” the Labour leader said.

The prime minister claimed the Labour leader was “inadvertently, I think, giving a false impression of what test and trace is doing”.

“The 33,000 cases in the country is, of course, an estimate,” Johnson added. “What NHS test and trace is doing is contacting the vast majority of those who test positive and they’re own contacts and getting them to self-isolate. And it is a formidable achievement.”


About the author

Matt Honeycombe-Foster is acting editor at PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome. He tweets as @matt_hfoster.

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