Tracing a Solution: A shift in approach for the UK’s coronavirus-tracing technology

July 5, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

The current coronavirus test and trace app developed by the NHS is being scrapped in favour of a model based on technology designed by industry giants Apple and Google.

What does this mean?

Theoretically, test and trace systems are designed to quickly test anyone who develops symptoms of coronavirus and trace those who have been in recent close contact with the individual through a mobile app (read our article on the differences between centralised and decentralised tracing apps here). Over the last month, the government has been testing the NHS developed app on the Isle of Wight. However, despite being effective at recognising distancing between individuals, it is ineffective at identifying Apple iPhones, therefore defeating the objective. So much so that only 4% of iPhones obtained recognition in comparison to approximately 75% of Android devices. The app also failed on Android phones in use for over four years. These factors naturally raised concerns within the UK about the effectiveness and long-term prospects of having a suitable app available.

Due to the shortcomings of the NHS app, the government is now planning to use incorporated software developed by Apple and Google set for an autumn launch.  The new technology will have a greater focus on privacy. It requests a reduced amount of data from users and imposes restrictions limiting the software to reporting symptoms and ordering tests. This means that individuals will be required to self-declare. 

What's the big picture effect?

This continuing saga is beginning to reflect poorly on the government.  PM Boris Johnson’s promise that a “world beating” test and trace regime would be available by 1 June has backfired and seen UK tech become a global laughing stock.  Nations worldwide, including Germany, Canada and South Korea, all have effective methods in place to deal with the virus. These focus on the convenience for the user by deploying largely human resource systems, consisting of rapid reporting and contact scouts. Indeed, Singapore’s TraceTogether app has had more than 800,000 downloads since 20 March, in the hope of delivering a “community-driven” response.  This is a shift in emphasis compared with the UK approach, whose objective in ensuring that any technology is convenient for the system developers has thus far proved ineffective, and may impact on the timeframe of an eventual launch for a new app. 

Furthermore, this issue highlights the fragility of the government’s task, to balance the protection of public health whilst safeguarding an economic recovery.  If a second wave of the virus is to be prevented and business and industry is to be protected, an effective test and trace system is vital to help mitigate economic damage and enable infection rates to reduce.  This is necessary to avoid what the Bank of England believes will be the worst recession in 300 years, including a predicted 8% economic slump and a bleak long-term forecast of a failing economy until 2023.

Only time will tell if app stores are graced with the presence of a functioning UK test and trace facility.  With Health Secretary Matt Hancock backpedalling on his previous timelines causing no precise new release date, the dangerous territory that the government is entering into is continually being amplified.  At this crucial stage with lockdown restrictions being loosened, test and trace could be the missing piece in the puzzle to protect economic interests in order to prevent a serious recession, while avoiding widespread devastation to the health and safety of UK citizens.

Report written by Evangeline Taylor

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