Minister says NHS contact-tracing app ‘isn’t a priority’ and may not launch until winter

Written by Matt Honeycombe-Foster and Sam Trendall on 18 June 2020 in News
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Date for possible rollout of technology has been pushed back significantly 

Credit: PA

The NHS contact-tracing app may not be ready until the winter and is no longer a government “priority”, a government minister has said.

Health secretary Matt Hancock had initially earmarked a late-May launch for the Government-backed app, which was intended to play a key role in the national “test and trace” strategy to combat Covid-19.

The Cabinet minister said at the time that the public had a "duty" to download the application — currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight — to their devices when it becomes available.

While 25,000 contact tracers have now been hired and are getting in touch with the contacts of those testing positive for Covid-19, Downing Street has repeatedly refused to provide a precise update on when the app itself will launch.


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Having initially framed the technology as the central pillar of the test and trace programme, it has now been described by ministers and officials as a “cherry on top” of the scheme.

Lord Bethell, the Department of Health and Social Care minister leading work on the app, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee this week: “We are seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn't a priority for us at the moment.”

Pressed for details on the Isle of Wight trial, he said: “The app pilot in the Isle of Wight has gone very well indeed, and it has led to some infections being avoided.”

But he argued that the scheme so far had revealed “human contact” was “most valued” by people worried about the virus.

“There is a danger in being too technological and relying too much on texts and emails, and alienating or freaking out people because you are telling them quite alarming news through quite casual communication,” the minister said. “The call centres we have put together actually have worked extremely well.  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.”

One of Lord Bethell’s DHSC colleagues, patient safety minister Nadine Dorries, said this week that a survey of Isle of Wight residents detailing their experiences with the app will be published by the government “in mid-June”, alongside “a report on the Isle of Wight phase evaluation”. 

The government commissioned non-profit social-research organisation NatCen to conduct the online survey. 

Dorries said that “the objective [is] to deliver a representative survey exploring experiences”, with respondents asked to provide information on age, sex and ethnicity – although not on any disabilities, as this is not among “NatCen’s standard demographics questions”.

“In addition, many rounds of user research and testing have been conducted throughout the development of the app, with people of different ages, genders, ethnicities, socio-economic status, and digital skills, to ensure it meets the needs of different groups,” she added. “We will always comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty, which considers the impact of a policy or decision on groups with protected characteristics, and we have carried out an Equality and Health Impact Assessment.”

The patient safety minister was responding to a written parliamentary question from Labour MP Dawn Butler, who asked whether the health department “has made an assessment of whether those people being… interviewed or surveyed are representative of the diversity of the UK”.

Butler also asked whether the survey’s methodology “was reviewed by the NHS Covid-19 App Data Ethics Advisory Board” – a question which Dorries did not address in her response.

The long delay to the potential launch of the UK's contact-tracing app comes shortly after Norway – another country that developed its own technology – suspended its Smittestop software and deleted all data gather so far after an investigation by Amnesty International found it was "deeply intrusive".

 

About the author

Matt Honeycombe-Foster is acting editor at PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where a version this story first appeared. He tweets as @matt_hfoster.

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