As Britain’s COVID-19 infections soared in the spring, the government reached out for what it hoped to become a game changer – a smartphone app that could automate some of the work of human contact tracers. The origins of the NHS COVID-19 app go back to a meeting on March 7, when three Oxford scientists met experts at NHSX, the UK health service engineering department. The scientists presented an analysis that concluded that manual contact tracking alone could not control the epidemic.
“Given the infectivity of SARS-CoV-2 and the high number of transmissions from presymptomatic individuals, it is impossible to control the epidemic through manual contact tracking,” the scientists’ Oxford paper, published two months later in the journal Science published. The Oxford researchers believed that a smartphone app could help locate people who didn’t know they were infected – and by quickly alerting them, could reduce and even stop the epidemic if enough people used it. Within days of the meeting, NHSX began awarding millions of dollars in non-bid contracts to develop such an app, government procurement shows.
In the weeks that followed, ministers used the technology as a way out of the British foreclosure that began on March 23. At a Downing Street coronavirus briefing on April 12, health secretary Matt Hancock announced that testing had started on what he called the “next step – a new NHS contacts tracking app.” He explained that people could use the app to feeling unwell and that it would anonymously warn other app users who had recently been in close contact with them On April 28, he said he expected the app to be ready in mid-May.
Privately, some researchers who proposed the app were shocked that the government had stopped widespread testing on March 12, a decision they say undermined the app’s effectiveness and public health in general. “We were very clear from the start that this thing should work with testing,” David Bonsall, an Oxford clinical scientist who attended the March 7 meeting, told Reuters. In early May, transportation secretary Grant Shapps announced a test of the app on the Isle of Wight. “That app will be rolled out and implemented later that month, assuming the tests are of course successful for the general population,” he said. “This is a fantastic way to ensure that we can really monitor this in the future.”
Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMware Inc, a Silicon Valley technology company hired to develop the app, told a Fox Business television partner on May 8, “I’m telling you, we think this is the best in the world and we are really excited to partner with the NHS in the UK to help make it happen. “But in late May, government officials downplayed the app. In an interview with Sky News, Hancock called the app” helpful, “but said traditional contact tracking should be rolled out first. He quoted another official saying,” It puts the icing on the cake, but is not the cake. “
Behind the scenes, NHSX testers discovered serious technical issues. The agency chose to develop an app that collected and stored data on central servers that could be used by health authorities and epidemiologists to study the disease. It depended on a technology called Bluetooth to determine who was recently around someone who was showing symptoms and for how long.
NHSX testers found that while the app was able to detect three-quarters of nearby smartphones using Google’s Android operating system, it sometimes identified only four percent of Apple iPhones, according to government officials. The problem was that the app on Apple devices often couldn’t use Bluetooth due to Apple’s design choice to preserve user privacy and extend battery life. The problem was no secret. Apple and Google jointly announced in April that they would release a toolkit to better enable Bluetooth for contact-tracing apps. But to protect user privacy, it would only work on apps that have data stored on phones, not central servers. The NHSX app didn’t work like that.
The government maintained that it had developed a successful solution to solve the Apple problem. But not everyone was convinced. The Privacy International advocacy group, which tested the app in early May, “discovered that it was not working properly on iPhones,” Gus Hosein, the group’s director, told Reuters. But because of the government’s guarantees, he said, “We just assumed we were doing something wrong.” Other countries, including Germany, decided that they would change their apps to work with the Apple Google toolkit. That caused another problem with the UK app – it probably wouldn’t be compatible with many other contact tracking apps so British travelers wouldn’t be notified if they were exposed to the virus.
On June 18, weeks after the UK app was to be rolled out, government officials announced a dramatic turnaround: they would abandon the app being tested on the Isle of Wight and try to create one that worked with Apple Google technology. They had already started and they had learned from the test, they said. NHSX referred questions about the app to the health department, who said, “Developing effective contact tracking technology is challenging for countries around the world and there is currently no solution accurate enough to estimate distance, identify other users, and be expensive. all of which are required for contact tracking. “
A VMware spokesperson said it is “proud of the work we have done and will continue to do to rapidly develop an application to support UK tracking and testing efforts for the UK”. A government official expressed confidence that the app would be ready in the fall or winter – although the official initially said it would not include contact tracking at all, but would offer other services yet to be determined.
(reporting by Steve Stecklow, edited by Janet McBride)