Nobody expected the UK government's testing and rollout of its COVID-19 track and trace app to go particularly smoothly, but to say the process has been shambolic could possibly be an understatement. After the recent news of its delay, we're now hearing that the NHS app is going to be completely reworked to incorporate Google and Apple's collaborative solution instead of the centralized version that was previously tested.
Health secretary Matt Hancock promised the app would launch in the middle of May as it began its pilot with a relatively small number of people on the Isle of Wight, but we're now unlikely to see it until Autumn. And even when it does finally arrive, it will likely only be useful for those who wish to report symptoms and request a test. Proper contract tracing functionality may not come until even later.
Reading between the lines of the official government statement, it would seem as though testing on the Isle of Wight didn't produce satisfactory results and so the decision has been taken to enlist the help of Google and Apple's API in the hope of developing a service that actually works. According to the BBC report, the app in its current state failed to recognize iPhones sufficiently (only 4%) while it was better at registering Android handsets (75%). The joint Google-Apple venture has a 99% success rate across both operating systems, although distance calculations are said to be weaker. Hancock blames Apple for the failings of the NHS app, saying its restrictions on third-party use of Bluetooth are prohibitive.
While the wait goes on for UK residents, similar apps are planned in various places across the US and have already been launched in several countries in Europe based on decentralized technology. By the time a working app arrives here in the UK, let's hope we either don't need it anymore or that it at least works flawlessly. I wouldn't count on either, though.
- Kieron Quinn