Still no date for NHS contact tracing app

The government’s controversial contact tracing app was described as essential to the success of the test and trace service by ministers and cost at least £12m before NHSX, the body created by health secretary Matt Hancock, was forced to abandon its original plans and instead align the app with a scheme led by Google and Apple.

There is still no date for when the government’s coronavirus contact tracing app will be rolled out to help stop the spread of the disease.

Giving evidence to the House of Lords science committee on Monday Baroness Dido Harding, who is leading the government’s test and trace service, said she could not give a date for when the app might be ready.

She said: “Technology development paths do not run in a smooth and linear way and so we’re keen not to commit to a specific date as the technology development work is ongoing.”

Baroness Harding, who is a Conservative peer and chair of NHS Improvement, said she believed the app would “play an important role” in the test and trace service adding: “There’s no doubt that if you can make contact tracing apps, and the Bluetooth technology work accurately enough, that that will be a significant benefit and free us all up a bit more, but it’s not something that we think anyone in the world has got working to a high enough standard yet to give us the confidence that if we just receive an electronic message telling us to isolate we would trust it.”

The app has been piloted on the Isle of Wight and Simon Thompson, former executive at Apple and chief product officer at online grocer Ocado, told the Lords committee a report detailing the findings and evaluation would be published.

He insisted the NHSX team had “made the right decision” in developing an app that did not use the Google or Apple framework, adding: “There are three elements that we believe the functionality needs to work to a really good standard. One of them is around contact reliability.

“The second one is around distance and time measurement. These are the three critical inputs that are required to produce a reliable risk score.

“The introduction of the app is urgent and important, but it must be a product that the users can trust. We have growing confidence that we will have a product that will be good.”

Asked how she monitored whether people were isolating and not spreading the virus, Baroness Harding admitted she did not have data on compliance and added that trust was key.

She told the committee: “The data to monitor adherence in other countries with different political and socio-economic approaches to life are requiring people to report in twice a day via an app.

“Others are monitoring their geolocation based on where their phone is. The judgement that I take is that mandating people to self-isolate and sort of forcibly monitoring them, is likely to discourage people coming forward for a test and to discourage the very people who will most need support in isolation and discourage them from naming their contacts and would be counterproductive.”

She said more than 80 per cent of people were telling the test and trace service they would isolate after been contacted.

Baroness Harding said while the app was important she saw the test and trace service as an inherently people-delivered service that was “digitally assisted” by the app.

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