The UK’s contact-tracing apps: why the long wait?

Chloe Kent 23 September 2020 (Last Updated September 23rd, 2020 12:51)

Over six months after the UK entered Covid-19 lockdown on 16 March, contact-tracing apps are finally being launched across the four nations. Why has the rollout taken so long, and how can the government make up for lost time?

The UK’s contact-tracing apps: why the long wait?
Contact-tracing apps work via ‘digital handshakes’ between devices via Bluetooth. Credit: Shutterstock

A new Covid-19 contact-tracing app developed by NHSX will finally launch across England and Wales on 24 September, over six months after the UK first entered lockdown. Scotland launched its Protect Scotland contact-tracing app on 10 September, and Northern Ireland’s StopCOVID NI became available in late July, using the same platform as the Republic of Ireland’s app.

Contact-tracing apps work via ‘digital handshakes’ between devices via Bluetooth. If a person tests positive for Covid-19, their close contacts can be traced through the app and given a notification informing them that they’ve encountered an infected person and need to self-isolate.

Many of these apps also have their own unique additional features. Ireland’s app includes a function where users can report Covid-19 symptoms, and the England and Wales app will offer a QR code check-in capability for public venues, allow users to book a Covid-19 test and have an isolation countdown timer to remind people to quarantine if they need to.

When Singapore has had effective track and trace technology in place since March, it can be hard to understand why it has taken the UK so long to catch up – especially when Singapore’s technology was open-sourced and available for app developers across the world to use.

Acquia EMEA general manager Steve Williamson says: “Countries such as Ireland, Germany, and Italy used open source to build their own applications months ago. Sadly, the UK did not follow suit, and wasted millions of pounds and hours of resources trying to build its own version.”

What’s more frustrating is there isn’t any concrete explanation as to why this has happened.

OpenUK CEO Amanda Brock says: “I don’t think anybody, anywhere, really has a clear answer as to why there wasn’t more of a joined-up approach at the beginning. Every government went off and did their own thing, Google and Apple went off and did their own thing.

“I guess there’s always a bit of a feeling that we’re special and we need to do our own thing and work with our existing legacy systems.”

Centralisation vs decentralisation

Of course, that’s not to say that Singapore’s system was without its flaws – many initial reports suggested people were reluctant to download the app, because Apple security software meant that iPhone users had to keep the app open at all times for Bluetooth ‘handshakes’ to occur. This drained the battery and severely limited the functionality of the device.

The issue occurred because Singapore’s contact-tracing relies on a centralised model, where data is captured in a single government database, an attitude not supported by Apple or Google for privacy reasons. This was the direction the UK contact-tracing app was initially heading in, before it was proven unsuccessful during an £11.8m trial run on the Isle of Wight.

“They had an algorithm that was going to assess the data, so that it could give a scale of output,” says Brock. “Rather than just saying ‘you’ve been in contact with somebody infected, isolate’, it would make more of an assessment because it had the data to work on. From a privacy perspective that created concern, because the government then have a lot of data about you and who you’ve been in contact with.”

Due to these security concerns, the tech giants favour a decentralised system, where the matching between infected people and those they’ve come into contact to happens between their phones and isn’t sent back to any central database.

The drawback to a decentralised app is that, while individual data is kept private, the state no longer has a way of seeing which citizens have been notified to self-isolate by the app, and therefore pre-empt where outbreaks may occur.

When a centralised app was trialled in the Isle of Wight, mobile phone security settings meant the app was able to pick up only 4% of contacts involving iPhones, and 75% involving Android users, rendering it essentially ineffective. NHSX then made a U-turn on the operating model, switching over to Apple and Google’s decentralised tech.

The new app has been trialled once more in the Isle of Wight, as well as in the London Borough of Newham among NHS volunteers, due to the very different population demographics and behaviours between the two areas. Speaking at parliament’s science and technology committee on 17 September, the app’s managing director Simon Thompson described the results of the recent trials as “encouraging”.

Why does the UK have three different contact-tracing apps?

The code for the Republic of Ireland’s Covid Tracker app was made public in July as part of an open-sourcing programme to help tackle the pandemic across borders, via the Linux Foundation. It was built by software developers at NearForm, in collaboration with the Irish Health Service Executive.

Protect Scotland and StopCOVID NI are both likewise built using NearForm’s technology. Meanwhile, England and Wales’s app has been built separately by NHSX, and thus doesn’t have the same development platform behind it – something that could cause problems.

Williamson says: “When it comes to developing high-quality software at speed, using open source is essential, which other nations were quick to recognise.”

To begin with, the apps will not work across borders. Protect Scotland will initially not work outside the country, although the Scottish government anticipates that it should work with equivalent apps in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar by the end of September.

However, there isn’t any set date for when Scotland’s app will work in England and Wales, or vice versa – not ideal, when Scotland and England share such a busy border. Health authorities in Scotland are set to liaise with authorities in England and Wales to ensure data sharing arrangements are considered.

“While it’s encouraging to see the UK’s track-and-trace app eventually scheduled to launch, the government needs to urgently investigate why it took so long,” says Williamson. “From a technological standpoint, there is no excuse for the delay. And what the delay reveals is a flawed understanding of software development at the heart of Downing Street. In a pandemic, speed is critical.”