Why the UK government's 'test and trace' app plan was doomed to fail

England's 'world-beating' app to track the Covid-19 virus has been binned. Why is no one surprised?

News that the UK is ditching the way its current coronavirus-tracing app works and shifting to a model based on technology provided by Apple and Google has come as a huge surprise... to absolutely no one in the UK tech sector. 

The truth is, the trouble around the NHS app has been brewing for months. 

Poor leadership

The first hint of problems came back in May when Baroness Dido Harding was tapped to run the wider test and trace effort for the government. The ex-Talk Talk boss (and board member for March’s virus-hotspot the Cheltenham Gold Cup) is hardly a darling of the UK tech sector. 

Harding is most famous for a catastrophic data breach at the broadband firm that wiped £24m worth of revenue off its balance sheet. TalkTalk was fined £400,000 by the UK's Information Commission for the ransomware attack that in the end saw two hackers arrested. In a notorious BBC interview after the attack, Harding was forced to admit that the "honest truth" was she did not know if the data stolen was encrypted or not. Eighteen months later she was out, but not before trousering a £2.81m payout from the broadband firm. 

This is hardly the kind of leadership to inspire confidence in the government’s test and trace programme.  

Then in May, an argument blew up over how much data the authorities could collect with the app. The row put Boris Johnson’s government up against Apple and Google who were pushing a competing design for tracking sufferers of coronavirus.  

Unfortunately for Johnson, Google and Apple control the operating software that runs on nearly every smartphone on Planet Earth. Apple and Google said they would not provide access to a Bluetooth signal on iPhones and Android phones that is needed to measure proximity unless Johnson’s government agreed to change direction. 

The government argued that centralised data would result in more information for epidemiologists. That argument did not fly. 

Privacy could not be guaranteed

Apple and Google were not the only ones pushing for a decentralised approach to protect against invasions of privacy. A group of more than 170 scientists signed an 29 April statement opposing the British app’s design.

"It is vital that, when we come out of the current crisis, we have not created a tool that enables data collection on the population, or on targeted sections of society, for surveillance," they wrote. 

While testing in the Isle of Wight, the NHS app then hit another snag. 

The NHS app worked well at assessing the distance between two users, but was poor at recognising Apple's iPhones. This and other "technical difficulties" meant that the app was not ready for use in time for the launch of England's test and trace system on May 28.  

The app's launch was supposed to coincide with public health messaging in late May and early June to explain how England's "test and trace" system would work.

When ministers admitted this week the app would not be ready until "winter", Boris Johnson put the government’s app out of its misery. On 18 June, he announced yet another embarrassing U-turn for his government.

The Apple and Google version of the app will provide access to a phone’s Bluetooth signal only to tracing apps that store health information on a person’s smartphone. This stops data from being uploaded and stored on centralised government servers.

England is not the only country executing a U-turn on a test-and-trace app. Germany recently reversed to support the Apple/Google specifications. Austria, Italy and Switzerland are using it as well.

Why does it matter?

The development of the app has been symptomatic of Johnson’s approach to the coronavirus as a whole. His government embarked on a test and trace system in March before U-turning and ordering a lockdown two weeks too late. Now, without a properly thought out test and trace system in place, coming out of lockdown appears to be suffering from similar false starts. As one critic noted, Johnson’s government just does not seem to be very good at this stuff. 

But if it’s a failure for Boris Johnson, it is a failure for tech too. 

A criticism often levelled at Big Tech is that while Silicon Valley claims it can solve fundamental problems (often called "solutionism"), the reality is somewhat different. Critics agree that tech is good at taking orders for pizza, spreading hate-speech or allowing you to binge-watch Succession, but there is no app for anything that deals with the important stuff: poverty, education, health. 

And it hurts that no UK tech firm has been asked to step into the breach during this national crisis. The UK tech industry has no answers in the pandemic. 

The world is locked in a global health crisis and the government cannot say when the new test-and-trace app will be ready. In the current climate, this is effectively the same as saying it will never be ready. 

Meanwhile in France, the government have pressed ahead with an app that centralises users data. The only thing is, it does not work on iPhones. 

Andy Pemberton is director of Furthr

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