If you paid over thirty-five million pounds for something, you would expect it to be useful. If you found that it was not useful, you would stop using it and demand your money back. In which case, why is the UK government continuing to insist on the use of the NHS COVID-19 app and not demanding its money back from the bewildering array of groups involved in its development?
Those involved were Accenture, Alan Turing Institute, NHS Digital, NHSx, VMware Pivotal Lab and Zuhlke Engineering. Apparently, the National Cyber Security Centre also supported the development in an advisory role.
The problem with the NHS COVID-19 app is not that is does not work. The problem is that it works too well. So well in fact that its results are completely meaningless. For example, on the issue of the app being able to communicate through walls and pick up a neighbour who had tested positive for coronavirus, the NHS COVID19 app support page assured us that this would not happen. But now that is exactly what is happening.
The UK has suffered the economic ravages of the pandemic with over half a million jobs lost, businesses closed and a severe increase in mental health problems and suicides. And at the point when we were assured that our freedoms were restored and things began to look up, we now have the ‘pingdemic’. No sooner was Freedom Day declared and businesses began to raise their shutters and welcome back customers than people began to be pinged through walls, in empty restaurants and walking down the street.
The result is that more than half a million workers have been pinged—meaning ten days self-isolation—and businesses are struggling to cope. You know things are bad when the BBC is unable to run its regional news progammes.
To accommodate this disastrous situation the government has declared a list of industries and occupations where workers who are pinged by their NHS COVID-19 app will not have to self-isolate including energy, civil nuclear, digital infrastructure, food production and supply, waste, water, veterinary medicines, essential chemicals, essential transport, medicine, medical devices, clinical consumable supplies, emergency services, border control, essential defence outputs and local government. It does beg the question of what the point in the app is if so many people can ignore it.
Millions of people never downloaded the app in the first place, and increasing numbers of people are deleting it. And the app contains a fundamental flaw. You get the option to turn off the contact tracing for a short time as advised by the NHS COVID-19 app support page under the following circumstances:
• when an individual is not able to have their phone with them, for example because it is stored in a
locker or communal area – this is to avoid the app picking up contacts when the individual is not
with their phone
• when an individual is working behind a perspex (or equivalent) screen, fully protected from other
colleagues and members of the public, as the individual is considered to be adequately protected
from contracting coronavirus (COVID-19)
• in a health or care setting where staff are wearing medical grade PPE (for example, a surgical
mask) as these individuals are also considered to be adequately protected
The maximum time which you can select to disable this function is eight hours. But, in fact, it does not turn itself back on. Therefore, many people simply keep the contact tracing function permanently turned off.
So, in the UK we have a situation where an app designed to alert us when we may be infected with a deadly virus can be turned off and is disabled or deleted by many people. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of people who have continued using the app are being alerted when they are not at risk. It would be harder to make up a better story.