Politics

Boris Johnson’s “world beating” virus contact-tracing app will be ditched in another embarrassing U-turn

Boris Johnson’s plans for a “world beating” contact-tracing app for coronavirus have been abandoned

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has conceded that the NHSX app being tested on mobile phones on the Isle of Wight has been scrapped.

The team behind the test and trace system to alert phone users when they have been close to someone infected by coronavirus are now  putting all their efforts into a system offered by Apple and Google.

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It follows months of warnings by experts that the Government’s in-house system would not work.

The Government’s ditched coronavirus app only picked up contacts with iPhones four per cent of the time and only detected Android phones 75 per cent of the time.

The UK gov app struggled to detect how far away another phone was which was a crucial element of the test and trace procedure.

Conversely, the testing of the system offered by phone manufacturers was accurate 99 per cent of the time.

Ministers were warned in May that the phone manufacturers would not let third party apps use the bluetooth connection while the phone is locked.

It is understood the team behind the NHSX app had been testing the Apple/Google system alongside their own system as a “plan B”.

Hancock originally promised the app, which has been under testing on the Isle of Wight, would be rolled out across the nation in “mid-May”.

Baroness Harding, the executive chair of NHS Test and Trace and Matthew Gould, the chief executive of the NHSX technology wing of the health service, confirmed on Thursday that there had been “specific technical challenges”.

“Our response to this virus has and will continue to be as part of an international effort,” they said in a joint statement.

“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.”

Hancock said the Government remained determined to develop an app which meets the “technical, security and user needs of the public”.

He said countries across the world had “faced challenges” in developing apps.

He said: “Our approach to the virus, whether that’s on vaccines, testing, treatments or cures, has been that we are willing to back innovative solutions and to be ambitious.

“We knew from the start that we would need to test and learn as we developed this new technology. The NHS Covid-19 app has undergone some of the most rigorous testing in the world and I want to thank all of those involved.

“As we enter this next phase of research and development we remain determined to continue in our ambition to develop an app which meets the technical, security and user needs of the public and which can complement the NHS Test and Trace service.”

The Scottish government was developing its own tech and it would adopt the app if it proved successful. But public health officials across the UK have been physically tracking people who have been in contact with coronavirus carriers and asking them to self-isolate for 14 days.



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