The UK government has confirmed that its smartphone app for tracking people who have been in contact with Covid-19 patients will not be ready for 1 June, when the next stage of the relaxation of lockdown is due to begin.
The admission came shortly after Boris Johnson vowed that a test and trace scheme using human contact tracers will be operational by the start of next month, when minister how to begin the process of a phased reopening on schools.
But under pressure from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, the prime minister did not make the same commitment for the “track” element of the proposed scheme, which is intended to involve the app developed by NHSX identifying potentially thousands of contacts of those who test positive for coronavirus.
The software has already been downloaded about 60,000 times as part of a pilot on the Isle of Wight. It uses Bluetooth signals to alert a user when they have spent more than 15 minutes within 6ft of someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 or has experienced symptoms.
Junior health minister Lord Bethell indicated that the government was no longer trying to get the app – currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight – into action at the same time as the tracing teams.
Speaking late on Tuesday in the House of Lords, the peer said: “We have therefore changed the emphasis of our communications and plans to put human-contact tracing at the beginning of our plans and to regard the app as something that will come later in support.”
The spokesman said that the app was “only part of the system” and declined to give a date for its national rollout, saying only that it would happen “in the coming weeks”.
Trials on the Isle of Wight have been hit by a number of teething troubles, including the app failing to work on some models of phone and swiftly draining users’ batteries.
Privacy campaigners have also raised concerns about a system which records and temporarily retains the numbers of anyone within a short distance of the user’s phone, so they can be identified and tested if the user falls ill with Covid-19
Security and usability concerns
Wide-ranging security flaws have been flagged in the Covid-19 contact-tracing app being piloted in the Isle of Wight.
The security researchers involved have warned the problems pose risks to users’ privacy and could be abused to prevent contagion alerts being sent.
Specifically, they call for new legal protections to prevent officials using the data for purposes other than identifying those at risk of being infected, or holding on to it indefinitely.
In addition, they suggest the NHS considers shifting from its current “centralised” model – where contact-matching happens on a computer server – to a “decentralised” version – where the matching instead happens on people’s phones