From the start of the Coronavirus crisis, there have been calls for the UK to be more like South Korea in how it manages the disease.
One of the ways the Government showed willing in this regard was by launching a track-and-trace smartphone app, which it trialled on the Isle of Wight in May – in the hope that it could be rolled out nationwide.
Unfortunately for the Government, the system appears to have failed; indeed, on Thursday the Department of Health and Social Care put out a statement explaining that: “Following rigorous field testing and a trial on the Isle of Wight, we have identified challenges with both our app and the Google/ Apple framework.”
Newspapers were characteristically scathing about what had happened: The Daily Mail called it a “fiasco”; The Times suggested contact tracing was now “in disarray”, and The Guardian described it “an embarrassing U-turn”.
Such sentiment has been echoed by technology and privacy experts – who warned about flaws in the Government’s initial strategy; to pursue a centralised system of contact tracing. This would have allowed epidemiologists to monitor all of the data and spot trends in the spread of Covid-19.
Germany and other countries had first taken this plan of action, but moved to decentralised model run by Apple and Google, having been cautioned of potential problems down the line. The UK, however, decided to stick to its own course – prompting criticisms that the Government was being pigheaded.
The premise of the UK app sounded simple. Using Bluetooth technology, it would alert anyone using the app when they had been in close proximity with someone else who’d tested positive for Covid-19 (and had registered the illness on their phone).
But it wasn’t quite so straightforward… As Kieran McCarthy wrote in The Register after the announcement of the UK’s contact tracing trial, some apps do not all “allow the tracing application to broadcast its ID via Bluetooth to supportive devices when it’s running in the background and not in active use” – an issue that has disproportionately been highlighted through Apple technology.
During the Isle of Wight trial, Google’s Android system was effective 75 per cent of the time (Oxford University experts suggest that contact-tracing apps need to be installed by 60 per cent of the population to work), but only four per cent for Apple devices. Hence the need for a new approach.
Has the Government actually “u-turned”, though? It’s not obvious how – seeing as Dido Harding, who heads up the testing programme – has never given the great light to Apple and Google’s app. The goal now, in fact, is to develop a hybrid of both apps – a “best of both worlds” approach.
As Matt Hancock pointed, neither solution is perfect. Speaking at Downing Street’s daily briefing, he said: “Our app won’t work because Apple won’t change their system, but it can measure distance. And their app can’t measure distance well enough to a standard that we are satisfied with.” In regards to the latter point, Trinity College Dublin suggests that the tech giants’ app could miss up to 95 per cent of contacts in enclosed spaces.
To add further confusion, a Government source has reportedly said that the NHS contact tracing app “could be diminished to just a ‘companion’ to manual tracking”, amid worries about the Bluetooth contact-tracing system. A few days earlier, Lord Bethell, the Junior Health Minister, told MPs that an app could be with us as late as winter, adding that “it isn’t a priority at the moment“.
So this begs all sorts of questions about the Government’s current mindset on contact tracing; have MPs lost interest in it? Perhaps with the advent of summer, and a public that’s tired of lockdown, they are less optimistic about compliance rates – and the app’s resultant efficacy.
Whatever the case, the backlash against the Government has been excessive – for several reasons.
For one, the media – as with everything in this pandemic – has framed contact-tracing hiccups as a UK problem, but it has not been easy anywhere in the world. As aforementioned, Germany “u-turned” on centralising the process and there have been numerous issues in other countries.
Australia, for example, has had a bug in the system, and Norway had to delete a bulk of data amid privacy concerns, as well as pausing its app after only 14 per cent of the population participated.
The other question to ask is why the Government – as opposed to Apple – should be blamed for the failed trial, given that Android phones could work with the technology.
Privacy experts will say that it’s besides the point – as Apple’s decentralised technology is better for individual liberties. But it’s still not obvious what’s so great about having two tech giants call the shots when it comes to managing this pandemic. Is it so wrong that governments want to limit their control?
The UK would not be alone with such an attitude; Singapore, for example, had a similar system, but mitigated (to an extent – uptake was still low) the aforementioned flaws by asking users to keep their screens turned on and the app active as much as possible.
Either way, the ultimate thing people seem to have forgotten was that the Isle of Wight “trial”. Yes, it was an expensive one – but by definition they are designed to showcase flaws as much as successes in anything they are testing.
Part of the backlash will simply be disappointment; we know that contact tracing is our escape from lockdown.
But as with much of the Covid-19, these processes are not easy. Wheeling out complex infrastructure in weeks maybe the hardest challenge for our Government – and many others – yet.