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Home Health Coronavirus UK: Contact tracing app 'urgent' say NHS chiefs

Coronavirus UK: Contact tracing app ‘urgent’ say NHS chiefs

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A contact tracing app is ‘urgent and important’ and will be able to do jobs that human employees can’t, NHS Test and Trace chiefs said today.

Speaking to senior politicians they said the UK still plans to roll out an app but could not put a timescale on it. They said ‘our sense is it needs to be a really good standard’.

Dido Harding, chief of NHS Test and Trace and Simon Thompson, managing director of the NHS Covid-19 App, appeared in front of the House of Lords’s Science and Technology Committee today. 

Baroness Harding admitted the Test and Trace programme is not yet hitting government targets but claimed it is ‘not far away’.

She said more work needs to be done to build up public confidence in the tracing system and the expected app, because neither will work without people’s co-operation. She said people’s trust must be earned rather than expected.

Both Baroness Harding and Mr Thompson said an app would be a ‘significant benefit’ to Britain’s ability to control the coronavirus, and repeated the claim that no other country has one that is good enough.

The UK’s attempt to make an app hit the rocks last month when tests on the Isle of Wight revealed the NHS’s version didn’t work on iPhones and one made by Apple and Google couldn’t tell how far away people were. 

Baroness Dido Harding, chief of NHS Test and Trace

Simon Thompson, managing director of the NHS Covid-19 App

Baroness Dido Harding, chief of NHS Test and Trace, and Simon Thompson, managing director of the NHS Covid-19 App, appeared in front of the House of Lords’s Science and Technology Committee today

Officials abandoned the NHS's attempt at making its own app in June when they realised it didn't work on iPhones (Pictured: The app in development stages)

Officials abandoned the NHS’s attempt at making its own app in June when they realised it didn’t work on iPhones (Pictured: The app in development stages)

Speaking in today’s meeting, Simon Thompson said: ‘The introduction of the app is urgent and important though it must be a product that the users can trust our feeling is it must work.’

Baroness Harding added it would be a ‘significant benefit and free us all up a bit more’.

Plans for an app suggest that it would use Bluetooth to keep a log of other people’s phones that come near to yours, so there would be an automatic record of ‘close contacts’, whether you knew them or not.

Then, when someone in a network tests positive for Covid-19, the app would alert everyone who had been close to them and put at risk.

But so far no technology has been able to both record all nearby phones and to accurately judge whether someone was a close contact or just relatively nearby, according to the Government.

Despite the setbacks, officials are determined to get an app up and running for Britain.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE NHS CONTACT TRACING APP?

Officials admitted on June 18 that the NHS app, once praised by the Health Secretary as vital for lifting lockdown and described by Boris Johnson as a central part of the UK’s test and trace system, did not work on Apple iPhones.  

The health service’s digital arm, NHSX, has now ditched plans to create its own app and will work with Apple and Google to improve their existing technology. 

Mr Hancock could not say when a tracking app would be ready amid claims it won’t be rolled-out until the winter.   

The app — which was originally promised for mid-May and the NHS spent months to develop — was unable to spot 25 per cent of nearby Android users and a staggering 96 per cent of iPhones in the Isle of Wight trial.

Meanwhile, the Apple and Google technology can spot 99 per cent of close contacts using any type of smartphone — but it cannot currently tell how far away they are, officials claimed today.   

The leaders of Britain’s test and trace system said neither app is fit for purpose and Mr Hancock appeared to point the finger at Apple for the failure, saying: ‘Our app won’t work because Apple won’t change their system’.

Apple and Google announced on April 10 that they would join forces to create the technology, by which time the NHS had already started work. All parties put their software into action around a month later, in mid-May.

Developers in the NHS will now work alongside the tech giants to try and roll its detection software and the NHS app’s distance-measuring ability — which they said was significantly better — together to make a hybrid app that actually works.  

Here’s how the NHS contact tracing app fell apart:

  • When used on iPhones the NHS app went into background mode and stopped recording nearby phones;
  • As a result it only managed to detect four per cent of possible contacts for Apple phone users. In contrast, it detected 75 per cent for Android phone users; 
  • The technology developed by Apple and Google could detect 99 per cent of nearby phones, officials said, but could not say how close they actually were;
  • Health bosses said the Apple/Google technology couldn’t differentiate someone 3m (9’8′) away with their phone in their hand from someone 1m (3’3′) away with it in their pocket;
  • Officials now want to merge the two, to have Apple/Google’s detection capability with the NHSX app’s ability to calculate distance, which was far better.
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Mr Thompson told the committee: ‘I think that when we have a look at the particular benefits that the app can bring to the programme there are three areas that we’ve really focused on. 

‘One is the speed, so the ability to communicate with the user in minutes.

‘The second one is precision, which is the ability to have confidence around the distance and time. Our sense is it needs to be a really good standard but we believe it will definitely be better than what a human could manage. 

‘And in terms of reach – the ability to know people that you have met who you did not know you had met – we believe that the app can make real inroads there.’

The health service’s digital arm, NHSX, last month ditched plans to create its own app and announced it would work with Apple and Google to improve their existing technology. 

The app — which was originally promised for mid-May and the NHS spent months developing — was unable to spot 25 per cent of nearby Android users and a staggering 96 per cent of iPhones in the Isle of Wight trial.

Meanwhile, the Apple and Google technology could spot 99 per cent of close contacts using any type of smartphone — but it cannot currently tell how far away they are, British officials claimed. 

The NHS Test and Trace system has since launched without the app and relies on human contact tracers phoning and emailing people who test positive for the coronavirus, and then following up their contacts.

Baroness Harding said today that the system is not yet meeting targets set by scientific advisers on SAGE, of getting 80 per cent of a coronavirus case’s contacts into self-isolation within 72 hours.

She also indicated that one of the problems she faced was that less than half of England’s population understood they could get a coronavirus test if they felt ill. 

The latest NHS Test and Trace figures showed that 27,125 people who tested positive for Covid-19 have had their case transferred to system.

Of this total, just 74 per cent were reached and asked to provide details of recent contacts.

Some 86 per cent of their 153,442 identified contacts were tracked down and asked to self-isolate for a fortnight. 

Speaking about the target, Baroness Harding said: ‘We are not far away from it,’ she said. ‘We are not exactly there yet but we are close enough that we can see the path.’

She acknowledged problems with public awareness of the way the system operates – and the availability of testing for people who need it.

‘Should we be doing more to educate and inform and give confidence in the service? Yes, I think we should. This is still only four-and-a-half weeks old,’ she said.

‘My biggest concern is that less than half of the population in England are aware they are eligible for a test, that everyone can get a test if they are feeling unwell.’  

She said that an app would be ‘significant benefit and free us all up a bit more’ but ‘it’s not something that we think that 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’.

Baroness Harding added the NHS Test and Trace system was a ‘digitally-assisted human service rather than something that is going to be purely digital’ and told peers: ‘People are extremely reticent to give up their freedom for two weeks based on a test message.’

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