NHS coronavirus contact tracing app ditched in major U-turn

As a result, the NHS app will be shelved, with a switch to a version based on the tech giants’ models, meaning the UK will follow Germany, Italy and Denmark, among others, in changing from a “centralised” approach to a “decentralised” one. 

However, officials are concerned about the reliability of this technology, with suggestions that it is unable to tell whether a contact is one or three metres away.

Last month, health officials launched a manual version of NHS Test and Trace, relying on 25,000 contact tracers to issue advice. 

The app was supposed to be introduced this month but its launch has been repeatedly delayed, with officials recently insisting it was the “cherry on the cake” rather than a central part of efforts to bring Britain out of lockdown.

Officials said on Thursday that many countries around the world, including Singapore, had only uncovered problems with their technology after the systems were rolled out, adding that the new system would bring together the work on the current app and the Google/Apple model. 

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said: “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, utilising a real-world trial on the Isle of Wight pilot and in a series of field tests, 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.  

“Countries across the globe have faced challenges in developing an app which gets all of these elements right, but through ongoing international collaboration we hope to learn, improve and find a solution which will strengthen our global response to this virus.” 

The NHS app trialled on the Isle of Wight worked well at assessing the distance between two users, but was poor at recognising Apple’s iPhones, research found. 

The Apple/Google model was far more successful in logging iPhones but its distance calculations were weaker. In some cases, it could not differentiate between a phone in a user’s pocket one metre away and a phone in a user’s hand three metres away.

In a joint statement, Baroness Dido Harding, the executive chair of NHS Test and Trace, and Matthew Gould, the chief executive officer of NHSX, said: “Three weeks ago, we launched NHS Test and Trace as a brand new, end-to-end service to help control the spread of Covid-19, and we are hugely grateful for the way the public have responded to protect those around them.

“Our ambition is to develop an app which will enable anyone with a smartphone to engage with every aspect of the NHS Test and Trace service, from ordering a test through to accessing the right guidance and advice.

“Our response to this virus has been, 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.”

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