Boris Johnson’s patience wears thin over tracing app

Boris Johnson and his senior Downing Street advisers are growing increasingly impatient at delays to the launch of the NHS’s coronavirus tracing app, pressing health officials for a rethink even as a new trial is set for next week.

According to two people with knowledge of the situation, pressure from Number 10 has been stepped up in the past few days with one telling the Financial Times that the prime minister wants serious consideration to be given to a different version of the app developed by Google and Apple.

One UK government official said there was “frustration with how long everything takes but the reality is that we are building something from scratch”. The official added: “It is obviously taking longer than people would have hoped.”

Health secretary Matt Hancock unveiled the tracing app at the start of May, insisting it would allow the UK “to take a more targeted approach to lockdown, while still safely containing the disease” and suggesting it would form the centrepiece of the tracing effort.

But it attracted controversy from the start with questions raised by privacy campaigners over the NHS’s plan to gather data in a central database and concerns over whether the technology would work.

Launching the test and trace programme late last month, its head, Dido Harding, described the app as “the cherry on the cake, rather than the cake itself” and refused to be drawn on a timetable for its implementation. A revised version of the app, which corrects previous glitches, is expected to be rolled out on the Isle of Wight early next week.

NHSX, the UK health service’s digital innovation arm, had already instructed its developers to begin building a second version of the app using the Google and Apple template, a move described by health officials at the time as a back-up option.

Switching to the Google and Apple technology would bring Britain into line with those being used by other European countries and make the app compatible for any Britons travelling abroad. Italy and Switzerland are expected to roll out versions of the app in the next few weeks.

The Google and Apple system also enables a key bluetooth function that detects proximity between phones without running down the battery — a problem NHSX developers are still struggling to solve on some devices.

NHSX developers are still struggling to solve how to enable a bluetooth function that detects proximity between phones without running down the battery on some devices
NHSX developers are still struggling to solve how to enable a bluetooth function that detects proximity between phones without running down the battery on some devices © AFP

However, the main stumbling block for the UK app team is that Google and Apple will not allow their technology to be used in any app that attempts wholesale collection of data — which NHSX regards as essential in tracking the spread of the virus. 

Christophe Fraser, an epidemiologist at Oxford university who is advising on the app, said last week that the question for ministers of whether to switch to a different design using Google and Apple technology remains live. “That’s a policy choice . . . that will be addressed at a point in time,” he told MPs.

But just switching to the US technology companies’ version may not be straightforward. “[It] isn’t just this existing technology that we can copy and paste for an app to be ready tomorrow. It’s just as complicated,” said the government official. 

Following the first phase of the Isle of Wight trial, which started in early May, developers have adapted the NHSX app so that it now only triggers alerts to a user in response to one of their contacts receiving a positive Covid-19 test result. Previously it was configured to alert people if one of their recent contacts reported symptoms of the virus. This change is partly because of the UK’s increased testing capacity.

People familiar with the thinking around the project said that ditching the current version would push back the app by at least two months, making it more likely that the original NHSX version would be rolled out first, leaving the option open to switch at a later date. NHSX declined to comment.

Meanwhile, an independent group of scientists said on Tuesday that the government’s test and trace strategy is “not fit for purpose” and has caused a loss of “moral authority”.

Independent Sage, an advisory group formed by 12 scientists as an alternative to the government’s top scientific advisory group, proposed instead a locally devolved system that would hand greater roles to existing local health systems, community doctors, nurses and environmental health officers.

Additional reporting by Tim Bradshaw and Anna Gross


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