Still no date for coronavirus tracing app as Hancock blames Apple for struggles

  • Video report by ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke

Matt Hancock could not say when a coronavirus contact tracing app would be rolled-out, as the Health Secretary blamed Apple technology for being unable to release the Government’s own app.

Speaking at the Government’s daily coronavirus press conference, Mr Hancock defended the Government’s latest U-turn after they abandoned plans to develop their own coronavirus app in favour of switching to technology developed by Apple and Google.

However despite ditching its own plans to develop an app, the Government is still unable to say when any effective app will be ready to use.

Mr Hancock said: “We’re working on it. We’re not going to put a date on it I’m afraid because I’m absolutely determined that, whilst this technology can help, it’s got to be working effectively.

“But I am confident we will get there – we will put that cherry on Dido’s cake.”

A coronavirus tracing app is seen as a key pillar to help easing lockdown restrictions, as the technology could have the ability to alert people if they have been in contact with someone with Covid-19.

Executive Chair of NHS Test and Trace, Baroness Dido Harding, left and Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock take part in a coronavirus media briefing in Downing Street. Credit: AP

The Government's app which it was trialling on the Isle of Wight worked well on Android devices but there was a "technical barrier" on iPhones, Mr Hancock said. The initial launch date for an app was originally given as May.

He said: “We found that our app works well on Android devices but Apple software prevents iPhones being used effectively for contact tracing unless you are using Apple’s own technology,” he said.

He said that the NHSX app was better at measuring distance than the Google/Apple model.

“As it stands, 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.”

  • Political Editor Robert Peston on this latest government U-turn

NHS Test and Trace chief Baroness Dido Harding and NHS boss Matthew Gould said there had been "specific technical challenges" in setting up the app.

While the Mr Hancock said other countries across the world had also "faced challenges" in developing apps.

In a statement on the U-turn, Baroness Harding and Mr Gould said: "Our response to this virus has and will continue to be as part of an international effort.

"That is why as part of a collaborative approach we have agreed to share our own innovative work on estimating distance between app users with Google and Apple, work that we hope will benefit others, while using their solution to address some of the specific technical challenges identified through our rigorous testing."

Mr Hancock said the government remained determined to develop an app which meets the "technical, security and user needs of the public".

He claimed that countries across the world had "faced challenges" in developing apps.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the app U-turn meant "precious time and money" had been wasted.

He said: “This is unsurprising and yet another example of where the Government’s response has been slow and badly managed. It’s meant precious time and money wasted.

“For months tech experts warned ministers about the flaws in their app which is why we wrote to Matt Hancock encouraging the Government to consider digital alternatives back in May.

“Ministers must now urgently prioritise building a fully effective test, trace and isolate regime led by local expertise to break the chains of transmission of this deadly virus."

The Government's own coronavirus app had been trialled in the Isle of Wight but plans for a rollout for the rest of the UK have been scrapped. Credit: PA

Bob Seely, the Tory MP for the Isle of Wight, where the Government had been trialling their own tracing app, said: “I want to thank everyone who downloaded the app and who contributed.

"The island provided invaluable feedback to the NHS which will inform the future approach and direction of research.”He said that parts of the app had worked well, adding: “It was good at measuring distance and Islanders like the idea of a companion app, helping to report symptoms.

“It worked well on Android phones. However, the app was very poor at picking up iPhone interactions.

“I understand that the Google/Apple app also has flaws, especially at measuring distance, but we I suspect have little choice but to work with Apple since the app will have to work on their phones.”

A test and trace system has been set up in the UK and the app was designed to be a key pillar in the fight against a second wave of Covid-19.

But officials said the government's app was highly inaccurate when used on iPhones - only identifying around 4 per cent of contacts.

Another criticism of the current system is that it is difficult for the person with coronavirus to provide details to tracers about strangers they do not know they may have come into contact with.

For example, scenarios where if a person with coronavirus travels on public transport or goes into a shop, the app is useful to track down unknown contacts.

Germany, Italy, Denmark and others have already switched to a “decentralised” approach.

A completed coronavirus self test package is passed through a car window. Credit: PA

What does this mean?

Google and Apple’s apps have been heralded as being more privacy-friendly than a centralised approached.

The Apple-Google model would ping signals between handsets themselves, which would make it difficult for authorities or hackers to try to use the data for themselves.

In a centralised approach, which was what the government has been aiming for, the contact matches would send information to a remote server.

How does a contact tracing app work?

A contact-tracing app is designed to let someone know if they’ve been in close contact with someone with coronavirus.

The app uses Bluetooth to keep an anonymous log of everyone you come into close contact with. When they – or indeed yourself – present symptoms of Covid-19, tell the app and it will then alert anyone that has been in close proximity.

Once installed and set up, the app will run in the background, keeping a log of everyone you pass.

The app will prove useful in helping to contact strangers who may have been exposed to coronavirus. Credit: PA

Users will need to provide the first part of their postcode and give the app permission to use Bluetooth, as well as its ability to receive notifications.

Bluetooth will need to be kept on.

When a person is feeling unwell, they need to send a report, stating whether they are experiencing a high temperature and a continuous cough, and when these symptoms started.

If it appears they might have the virus, the person will be told to book a test.

The information is then uploaded, along with the last 28 days of proximity events, and fed into a complex at-risk algorithm which crunches data such as distance, duration and symptoms.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know