British application COVID-19: the game changer that was not

LONDON (Reuters) – As COVID-19 infections in Britain skyrocketed in the spring, the government sought what it hoped might be a game changer: a smartphone app that could automate some of the trackers’ work. of human contacts.

FILE PHOTO: Anni Adams, an employee of the UK National Health Service, shows a smartphone displaying the new NHS application to track contacts with people potentially infected with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) being tested in Isle of Wight, Great Britain, May 5, 2020. Binnie Island / File Photo

The origin of the NHS COVID-19 application dates back to a meeting on March 7 when three Oxford scientists met with experts at NHSX, the technical arm of the UK health service. The scientists presented an analysis that concluded that manual contact tracing alone could not control the epidemic.

“Given the infectivity of SARS-CoV-2 and the high rate of transmission from presymptomatic individuals, it is not feasible to control the epidemic by manual contact tracing,” concluded the article by the Oxford scientists, which was published in the journal Science. two months later.

Oxford researchers believed that a smartphone app could help locate people they didn’t know were infected, and alerting them quickly could reduce and even stop the epidemic if enough people used it. Within days of the meeting, NHSX began the process of awarding contracts without a bid worth millions of dollars to develop such an application, government procurement records show.

In the weeks that followed, ministers took advantage of the technology as a route out of Britain’s closure that began on March 23. At a coronavirus briefing on Downing Street on April 12, health secretary Matt Hancock announced that testing had begun in what the government called “next step: a new NHS app for contact tracking.”

He explained that people could use the app to report that they feel bad and would anonymously alert other users of the app who had recently been in close contact with them. On April 28, he said he expected the app to be ready by mid-May.

Privately, some researchers who had proposed the app were shocked that the government had suspended widespread testing on March 12, a decision they believed undermined the app’s effectiveness and overall public health. “From the beginning we were very clear that this had to work with the tests,” David Bonsall, an Oxford clinical scientist who attended the March 7 meeting, told Reuters.

In early May, Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps announced a trial of the app on the Isle of Wight in England. “Later in the month, that app will be deployed and deployed, assuming the tests are successful, of course, for the general population,” he said. “This is a great way to ensure that we can really control this in the future.”

Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMware Inc, a Silicon Valley tech company hired to develop the app, told a Fox Business television interviewer on May 8, “I’m telling you, we think this is the best in the world and We are really delighted to be working with the NHS in the UK to help achieve this. ”

But in late May, government officials were downplaying the app. In an interview with Sky News, Hancock called the app “useful,” but said that traditional contact tracking should be implemented first. Quoting another official, he said: “It puts the icing on the cake but it is not the cake.”

Behind the scenes, NHSX testers discovered serious technical problems.

The agency had chosen to develop an application that would collect and store data on central servers that could be used by health authorities and epidemiologists to study the disease. He relied on a technology called Bluetooth to determine who had recently been around someone with symptoms and for how long.

NHSX testers found that while the app could detect three-quarters of nearby smartphones using Google’s Android operating system, it could sometimes only identify four percent of Apple’s iPhones, according to government officials. The problem was, on Apple devices, the app often couldn’t use Bluetooth due to Apple’s design choice to preserve user privacy and extend battery life.

The problem was not secret. Apple and Google had jointly announced in April that they would launch a set of tools to better enable Bluetooth in contact tracking applications. But to protect the user’s privacy, it would only work in applications that store data on phones, not on central servers. The NHSX app did not work that way.

The government insisted that it had developed a successful solution to overcome the Apple problem. But not everyone was convinced. Defense group Privacy International, which had tested the app in early May, “found that it didn’t work properly on iPhones,” Gus Hosein, the group’s chief executive officer, told Reuters. But because of government assurances, he said, “We assume we were doing something wrong.”

Other countries, including Germany, decided that they would change their applications to work with the Apple-Google toolset. That posed another problem with the UK app – it probably wouldn’t be compatible with many other contact tracking apps, so British travelers would not be notified if they were exposed to the virus.

On June 18, weeks after the app was rolled out in the UK, government officials announced a radical makeover: They would abandon the app being tested on the Isle of Wight and try to create one that works with the technology. Apple-Google. The work had already begun and they had learned lessons from the test, they said.

NHSX referred questions about the application to the health department, which said: “Developing effective contact tracking technology is a challenge facing countries around the world, and there is currently no solution that is accurate enough to estimate distance. , identify other users and calculate the duration that are all necessary for contact tracking. ”

A VMware spokesperson said “it is proud of the work that we have done and continue to do to rapidly develop an application that supports UK contact monitoring and testing efforts.”

A government official expressed confidence that the app is ready for fall or winter, although initially, the official said, it may not contain tracking of contacts, but offer other services that have not yet been determined.

Steve Stecklow’s report, edited by Janet McBride

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