Covid-19: Why the UK virus app could be another pandemic misstep

A UK National Health Service employee showing a smartphone displaying the new NHS app to trace contacts with people potentially infected with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) being trialled on Isle of Wight, Britain. — Reuters

The UK took its own route into a coronavirus lockdown, and now appears to be pursuing its own route out as well, developing a contact-tracing mobile phone app that works differently from those favoured by many other countries.

The app, rolled out for trial on the Isle of Wight on May 7, is central to the efforts of Boris Johnson’s government to end the restrictions that have shut much of the British economy. If people can be quickly isolated after they’ve come into contact with an infected person, others can be allowed to go about their lives.

But success depends on the app working, and on very large numbers of people trusting the government with their data. Privacy campaigners and data scientists warn that the U.K. is putting both of those at risk by adopting its own model, rather than the one supported by Alphabet Inc’s Google and Apple Inc.

"The National Health Service does not have a good record with this – moving really fast, nimbly, understanding technology,” said Neil Bacon, a doctor and founder of information-sharing networks and "People are right to raise more than an eyebrow when they see that the NHS is going left and Google, Apple, and most of the world is going right.”

Covid-19 deaths

From initially resisting calls for a lockdown to failing to join a European Union effort to buy much-needed personal protective equipment, the UK has gone its own way during the pandemic, with questionable results. Britain is now the European country with the highest level of Covid-19 deaths.

With the US, Germany, Italy and others leaning toward the model supported by the American tech giants, some academics, lawmakers and members of the general public have suggested Britain could be making another misstep.

The government disagrees.

"The NHS app will significantly speed up contact tracing and help us stop the spread of the virus,” the Department of Health and Social Care said in an emailed statement. "It is a key part of our wider strategy of testing and tracing, and will enable us to alert those most at risk of infection so they can take action to protect themselves, the people they care about and the NHS.”

Both the UK and other countries’ approaches use Bluetooth on smartphones to detect and keep track of who a person meets – raising questions about privacy. Tracing apps supported by Apple and Google try to mitigate those risks by using a "decentralised” model that keeps the contact information on an individual’s phone.

Under this approach, each phone regularly checks in with a central server to determine whether it has been near someone on an anonymous list of users who have tested positive for Covid-19. If it has, the owner is notified.

The UK argues this misses the opportunity to study how the virus is spread, and is proposing a "centralised” model. With its method, a user who develops coronavirus symptoms presses a button on the app, which then uploads its record of contacts to a central server. Those are then decrypted and messages are sent to each affected person.

Tracking spread

Matthew Gould, chief executive officer of the health service’s digital arm, NHSX, which is developing the app, pointed out the benefits of the British model when he appeared before a parliamentary committee on May 4. It allows scientists to get more information about how the virus spreads.

"We are balancing privacy with the need for the public health authorities to get insight into what symptoms subsequently lead to people testing positive,” he said.

The British setup would also make it easier to inform people if their contact who showed symptoms subsequently tested negative for the virus.

Surveillance system

But the merits of a centralised model could be outweighed if they come at the cost of trust, even though the UK app never asks for a user’s name.

"This is essentially usable as a surveillance system. I’m not saying they intend to use it as that, but they could use it as that,” said Mark Ryan, a professor in computer security at the University of Birmingham. "What I would really like to see is a much clearer statement about how this data can be used, how it’s being siloed from other databases, and what kind of end they can promise” to its use.

Forging its own path also raises technical questions because it cuts the UK off from tight integration into Apple and Google’s operating systems. There are doubts about how well the app will work, whether it will be active when the screen is off, and whether it will start automatically when the phone reboots.


The app is being built for the NHS by VMware Pivotal Labs, a software development consultancy that is part of VMware Inc. Several other organisations are actively helping the NHS to develop and test the app.

The UK government began discussing the app in early March. At that point, scientists and ministers were resisting calls for a full lockdown, instead talking up the benefits of allowing the infection to spread among low-risk groups to develop "herd immunity”. Authorities were also insisting that the UK’s low capacity to test people for the virus wasn’t a serious issue.

Those early misjudgments have since been reversed: herd immunity was dropped, and testing dramatically ramped up. As Britons begin emerging from lockdown, experts say getting contact tracing right the first time is crucial. – Bloomberg

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