Government ABANDONS Matt Hancock’s beleaguered NHS Covid tracking app

Humiliation for Hancock as government ABANDONS beleaguered Covid tracking app will use Apple and Google-based technology instead

  • The phone software was meant to be rolled out in May to help ease lockdown
  • Despite a pilot scheme on the Isle of Wight it has yet to be introduced
  • Ministers now say it will be ready for autumn earliest and will not be NHS-made
  • NHS’s app did not work on iPhones, missing 96 per cent of nearby contacts
  • But similar tech made by Apple and Google cannot tell how far away people are 

The Government has abandoned plans for its NHS contact tracing app in a dramatic U-turn after finding it could only spot four per cent of people using iPhones.

Once praised by Health Secretary Matt Hancock as crucial for lifting lockdown, the app has now been scrapped and officials say they will try to help improve one being developed by Apple and Google.

Health bosses today said the app the NHS has spent months developing was unable to spot 25 per cent of nearby Android users and a staggering 96 per cent of iPhones.

Meanwhile, the Apple and Google technology can spot 99 per cent of close contacts using any type of smartphone – but it cannot tell how far away they are, officials said.

People standing three metres away with their phone in their hand appear in the system in the same way as someone one metre away with the phone in their pocket. 

The leaders of Britain’s test and trace system said neither of the apps are fit for purpose and that one will not be available to the public any time soon.

Developers in the NHS will now work alongside the tech giants to try and roll its detection software and the NHS app’s distance-measuring ability – which they said was significantly better – together to make a hybrid app that actually works. 

Baroness Dido Harding, who runs test and trace, and NHS tech boss Matthew Gould said they had discovered ‘technical challenges’ with using apps to contact trace.

They have not revealed time-frame for rolling out an app and say the focus is now on human contact tracers. Health minister Lord James Bethell said yesterday that it was unlikely there would be an app ready before winter. 

Officials refused to reveal how much money has been spent on developing the NHS’s now-scrapped app and on trialling it on the Isle of Wight. 

The Labour Party said the Government ‘precious time and money’ had been wasted in the fiasco, which represented further ‘poor management’ of the Covid-19 crisis.

Here’s how the NHS contact tracing app fell apart:

  • When used on iPhones the NHS app went into background mode and stopped recording nearby phones;
  • As a result it only managed to detect four per cent of possible contacts for Apple phone users. In contrast, it detected 75 per cent for Android phone users; 
  • The technology developed by Apple and Google could detect 99 per cent of nearby phones, officials said, but could not say how close they actually were;
  • Health bosses said the Apple/Google technology couldn’t differentiate someone 3m (9’8″) away with their phone in their hand from someone 1m (3’3″) away with it in their pocket;
  • Officials now want to merge the two, to have Apple/Google’s detection capability with the NHSX app’s ability to calculate distance, which was far better.
Ministers are expected to set out this afternoon that they are scrapping custom-made software for the NHSX app and use a system already developed by Apple and Google

Ministers are expected to set out this afternoon that they are scrapping custom-made software for the NHSX app and use a system already developed by Apple and Google

The app developed by the NHS didn't work for people using Apple iPhones and effectively went into sleep mode, failing to pick up nearby devices using Bluetooth (stock image)

The app developed by the NHS didn’t work for people using Apple iPhones and effectively went into sleep mode, failing to pick up nearby devices using Bluetooth (stock image)

 

The NHS app has faced a gauntlet of setbacks since ministers announced it was being developed, with experts raising serious privacy concerns, others saying it wouldn’t work in crowded tower blocks where people live in close proximity, and constant delays putting back its launch date at first by weeks and then months.

It has now emerged that the app simply didn’t work when used on Apple iPhones – it essentially went into sleep mode and was unable to detect 96 per cent of contacts.

Although it worked better on Android, detecting 75 per cent of phones nearby, it did not compare with the 99 per cent detection achieved by Apple and Google’s software. 

That technology, however, could not tell how far away someone was and produced the same signal for people at three metres as it did for people at one metre.

THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE NHS AND GOOGLE/APPLE TECHNOLOGY

It is not clear why the NHS app was so much worse as using Bluetooth to detect other phones than the Apple/Google technology is.

And officials have not explained why or how it is better at measuring the distance between two phones.

The main difference between the two apps is the way they store data.

Both keep a log of who someone has come into close contact with – but the NHS’s app would have kept information in a centralised database, while the Google/Apple app is de-centralised. 

NHS app: Lists on NHS servers 

The NHSX app would create an alert every time two app users came within Bluetooth range of one another and log this in the user’s phone.

Each person would essentially build up a list of everyone they have been in ‘contact’ with. This would be anonymised so the lists were actually just be numbers or codes, not lists of names or addresses. 

If someone was diagnosed with the coronavirus or reports that they have symptoms, all the app users they got close to during the time that they were considered infectious – this will vary from person to person – would receive an alert telling them they have been put at risk of COVID-19 – but it wouldn’t name the person who was diagnosed. 

NHSX insisted it would have deleted people’s data when they get rid of the app, but not data uploaded to the NHS server if they or a contact tested positive.

Apple/Google: Contained on phones

In Apple and Google’s de-centralised approach, meanwhile, the server and list element of this process is removed and the entire log is contained in someone’s phone.

That app works by exchanging a digital ‘token’ with every phone someone comes within Bluetooth range of over a fixed period.

If one person develops symptoms of the coronavirus or tests positive, they will be able to enter this information into the app.

The phone will then send out a notification to all the devices they have exchanged tokens with during the infection window, to make people aware they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

The server database will not be necessary because each phone will keep an individual log of the bluetooth profiles someone has come close to. These will then be linked anonymously to people’s NHS apps and alerts can be pushed through that even after the person is out of bluetooth range.

It is understood that if someone later deletes the Google/Apple app and closes their account their data would be erased.

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The amount of time people spend within a certain distance of one another – currently two metres – is the crux of how contact tracing works.

People living in apartment buildings, for example, are likely regularly within three metres of someone but not actually in the same flat or even on the same floor.

NHS bosses now say they will pool the positives of both apps to try and create one which can be used in Britain in the future, but this is likely to take months.

Baroness Harding and Mr Gould, CEO of NHSX, the health service’s digital department, said today in a joint statement: ‘We have agreed to share our own innovative work on estimating distance between app users with Google and Apple – work that we hope will benefit others – while using their solution to address some of the specific technical challenges identified through our rigorous testing.’ 

The Government now says it will focus on contact tracing using human staff, for which it has hired 25,000 people.

Matt Hancock said: ‘We knew from the start that we would need to test and learn as we developed this new technology. 

‘The NHS Covid-19 app has undergone some of the most rigorous testing in the world – utilising a real world trial on the Isle of Wight pilot and in a series of field tests – and I want to thank all of those involved…

‘Countries across the globe have faced challenges in developing an app which gets all of these elements right, but through ongoing international collaboration we hope to learn, improve and find a solution which will strengthen our global response to this virus.’

The Labour Party hit out at Boris Johnson’s Government over the U-turn, accusing it of more poor management.

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: ‘This is unsurprising and yet another example of where the government’s response has been slow and badly managed. 

‘It’s meant precious time and money wasted.

‘For months tech experts warned ministers about the flaws in their app which is why we wrote to Matt Hancock encouraging the government to consider digital alternatives back in May.

‘Ministers must now urgently prioritise building a fully effective test, trace and isolate regime lead by local expertise to break the chains of transmission of this deadly virus.’

Experts raised concerns about the NHS app as soon as plans for it were announced.

The health service had planned to use a ‘centralised’ model in which, when someone tested positive for the virus, data related to their phone’s interactions with other phones would be uploaded to an NHS database and not deleted.

This sparked fears about privacy and the potential for hackers to identify people and track them.

And there were also concerns that the way the apps used Bluetooth would not work well, especially in densely-populated areas like city tower blocks.

People could have their app triggered by their neighbours and have to self-isolate despite not actually being at any risk, critics said.

Head of research at the Adam Smith Institute think-tank, Matthew Lesh, said: ‘We have lost crucial time, but it is welcome that the Government has listened to public concerns to get this important project right. 

‘It was always folly for NHSX to try building an app from scratch. 

‘Despite assertions, it was never going to work as well or ensure privacy would be protected as the Apple-Google framework. 

‘The decentralised, Apple-Google approach will protect privacy, work across borders, limit battery drain, and effectively work in the background. A more effective app will help protect the NHS and save lives as winter approaches.’ 

Lord Bethell, a health minister responsible for the Covid-19 testing programme, said yesterday that the app was no longer the Government's priority and it might not be ready by winter

Lord Bethell, a health minister responsible for the Covid-19 testing programme, said yesterday that the app was no longer the Government’s priority and it might not be ready by winter

Government officials now say people would rather interact with humans in the contact tracing system and that this could be a better way of keeping public trust.

Being told to self-isolate by an app might be less impactful than a phone conversation with a contact tracer, they believe. 

90,000 PEOPLE TOLD TO SELF-ISOLATE THROUGH TEST AND TRACE IN TWO WEEKS

Almost 90,000 people in England were told to self-isolate in the first two weeks of the NHS test and trace scheme designed to keep a lid on the coronavirus outbreak.

Department of Health data today revealed that a total of 87,639 people have been contacted and asked to stay at home because they might have Covid-19. 

England’s system has been up and running since May 28 and has had to trace people who have been in close contact with one of 14,045 confirmed coronavirus patients.

But thousands of people are still flying under the system’s radar, with tracers unable to reach 27.4 per cent of all at-risk contacts so far – a total 3,853 people.

And one in 10 of their contacts (9.4 per cent) were also unable to be contacted, meaning some 9,107 people were either unaware they might be infected or ignored contact tracing staff.

The Labour Party called this ‘hugely worrying’ and said large proportions of at-risk people slipping through the net was a ‘gaping hole’ in the UK’s Covid-19 strategy.

Statistics for the week from June 4 and June 10, published today, showed that 44,895 contacts were identified, meaning the army of 25,000 contact tracing staff had to phone, on average, two people each over the course of an entire week.  

Dido Harding, who is in charge of the service, last week admitted it was ‘not yet at the gold standard’ but said it would improve over time. 

The data for the first week, from May 28 to June 3, has also been revised and the number of people contacted soared from just 27,000 to 47,000.

This suggests the average number of contacts people are having is rising as lockdown rules continue to loosen, with people in the first week coming into contact with an average 8.9 people each and those in the second week 10.2 people each. 

Tracers attempt to contact someone 10 times within the first 24 hours of receiving their details and use phone calls, texts and emails to try and get through. 

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own contact tracing systems up and running but deal with significantly smaller numbers of people.

Lord Bethell, a member of the House of Lords and minister for innovation at the Department of Health, told MPs in Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee yesterday: ‘The pilot on the Isle of Wight has gone very well indeed and it has led to some infections being avoided.

‘But one of the things it taught us is that it is the human contact that is most valued by people.

‘There is a danger of being too technological and relying too much on texts and emails and alienating people because you’re telling them quite alarming news through quite casual communication.

‘Whereas [the] call centres we’ve put together have actually worked extremely well. So that is where our focus is at the moment.’ 

Health officials today stressed the need for a successful test, track and isolate programme amid concerns of a possible second wave of coronavirus cases in the autumn.

Dr Hans Kluge, European regional director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), said contact tracing and quarantining people potentially infected with Covid-19 was ‘an essential element’ of the strategy. 

Dr Kluge told a Russian-centred WHO briefing on Thursday that it was ‘well possible’ that the autumn could have an impact on the number of cases, in the same way flu cases peak towards the end of the year.

He said: ‘It’s well possible that when the autumn starts and we have also the seasonal influenza, there is the possibility of a seasonal effect on the virus – but we’re not sure yet – that then we will see a second wave.

‘So the lesson is that we have to implement what we know works – at the core of the strategy is to find as early as possible, isolate, test suspected people from Covid, and if needs be treat them without any stigma or discrimination.

‘At the same time (governments need) to track and quarantine contacts – contact tracing is an essential element of this strategy.

‘But there is no single solution.’ 

Reports today had earlier suggested the app could be binned completely. 

Ministers have lashed out at Apple, saying it is refusing to alter its rules on allowing apps to use smartphones’ Bluetooth connectivity when they are not in use.

The tracking app requires this connectivity to operate fully and track who the user has been in close contact with, so they can be warned of a possible infection.

A minister told the Times: ‘They’ve chosen not to co-operate with us,’

‘We’ve been trying to engage at relatively senior levels. We’ve pushed at all the doors we can get at.’

Apple denied the claim, according to the paper.   

Health Secretary Matt Hancock had initially told the country the heralded app would be available in mid-May, but officials have since launched the Test and Trace system without it.

Lord Bethell told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that the app being trialled on the Isle of Wight had taken a backseat to manual contact tracing.

Manual contact tracing works by people in call centres phoning those who have been put at risk by a confirmed Covid-19 patient to give them the news. 

An app would create an alert every time two app users come within Bluetooth range of one another and log this in the user’s phone.

Each person will essentially build up a list of everyone they have been in ‘contact’ with. This would be anonymised so the lists would actually just be numbers or codes, not lists of names or addresses. 

If someone tells the app that they have tested positive for Covid-19, all the app users they got close to during the time that they were considered infectious – this will vary from person to person – will receive an alert telling them they have been put at risk of COVID-19 – but it won’t name the person who was diagnosed. 

Lord Bethell said feedback from people on the Isle of Wight found people preferred to receive the ‘alarming’ news from a real person rather than a text or email.

He also admitted there were ‘technical challenges’ that made it difficult to scale the technology up from being used by a few hundreds people to tens of millions.

NHS Test and Trace contact tracers failed to reach 33 per cent of people who tested positive for coronavirus

NHS Test and Trace contact tracers failed to reach 33 per cent of people who tested positive for coronavirus

There are around 25,000 human contact tracers currently employed by the Government specifically to track down and reach out to people who have been close to people with the coronavirus.

They are mostly employed by private contractors working on behalf of the Government around the country. 

Lord Bethell continued: ‘Apps around the world have been challenging and I note that the Norwegians, Singaporeans, the French and others have all been working on their app releases.

‘We’re seeking to get something for the winter, but it isn’t a priority for us at the moment.’

‘I won’t argue there are technical challenges with getting the app right, and we are really keen to make sure that we get all aspects of it correct. We’re not feeling great time pressure, we’re focused on getting the right app.’  

Experts believe an app will be critical to the success of the programme because it digitally logs people’s close contacts. 

At the moment the system is entirely reliant on human memory and honesty, and physical contact tracing work done by an army of contact tracers. 

The app’s contact tracing data would massively speed up the process of finding out who has been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the disease.  

What is the NHS Test and Trace system? 

Anyone who develops Covid-associated symptoms is being told to self-isolate and get tested under the test and trace scheme.

Close contacts of those who are found to be positive for the disease are then told to quarantine for 14 days – even if they test negative and are not sick. 

Boris Johnson’s government has hired an enormous army of 50,000 people who will attempt to make this huge undertaking possible. 

Around 25,000 are contact tracers who will contact people who return positive coronavirus tests to grill them on their movements and their known associates. 

The idea is to build a picture of who they have come into contact with and so who might be at risk of a) becoming ill and b) passing it on to more people.    

Another 25,000 people in the scheme are testers, who will go out into the community and test these known associates.

Either way, these known associates will be under orders to immediately quarantine, even if the tests they return are negative.  

Baroness Dido Harding, executive chairwoman of NHS Test and Trace, said the scheme was central to easing the lockdown further.

She said: ‘NHS Test and Trace is designed to enable the vast majority of us to be able to get on with our lives in a much more normal way. 

‘We will be trading national lockdown for individual isolation if we have symptoms.

‘Instead of 60 million people being in national lockdown, a much smaller number of us will be told we need to stay at home, either for seven days if we are ill or 14 days if we have been in close contact.’ 

The UK’s coronavirus tracing programme will be split into two parts.

  • Part One: 

People will be ordered to self-isolate for seven days if they develop symptoms. Anyone in the same household will have to do the same. 

Those people should then order a coronavirus test online or by calling 119. This will be available for residents in Wales from Saturday.

If a test is positive, that victim must complete seven days in isolation. If the test comes back negative, no one needs to self-isolate.

However, people with a positive test for Covid-19 will then be contacted via text message or email or by phone and told to answer questions.

They will be asked to share phone numbers and email addresses for close contacts.

For those under 18, they will receive a call from the team and a parent or guardian must give permission for the call to continue. 

People who have been listed as a person with whom a coronavirus victim has had close contact will receive a text message or an email.

They will then be asked to self-isolate for up to 14 days based on when they last came into contact with that person.

Other household members do not need to self-isolate unless symptoms are present.

If they develop Covid-associated symptoms, all other household members should self-isolate and they should then order a test.

If the test is positive, self-isolation must continue for seven days. If the test is negative, that person should still complete 14 days in case the virus is not showing.

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