Winter is coming, and with it the UK's COVID-19 contact-tracing app – though health minister says it's not a priority

'Focus' now on call centre-based system run by outsourcers, it seems

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Once described as a key part of England's COVID-19 test-and-trace system, the smartphone app being trialled on the Isle of Wight is no longer a priority for the UK government and won't be ready until winter.

In May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said England would have a "world-beating" tracing system from June, the Department of Health and Social Care having already committed to putting a mobile app at the heart of its approach.

Asked about progress in developing the app, Lord Bethell, Minister for Innovation at the Department for Health and Social Care, told the Science and Technology Committee yesterday: "We're seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn't the priority for us."

He added that call centre-based contract tracing, where medical experts quiz those testing positive for COVID-19 about their recent contacts, was the focus of the department's efforts.

"We have plenty of capacity to do the amount of tracing that is necessary. There are technical challenges. We're getting the app right and we are really keen to make sure that we get all aspects of it correct, so we're not feeling under time pressure, and therefore my focus is on getting the right app."

Lord Bethell told the committee that people in the Isle of Wight had supported the app, and there were examples of the app helping to break the chain of virus transmission.

But he added that trial participants also welcomed human contact from call centres.

"There is a danger of being too technological and relying too much on text and emails and freaking out people, because you're telling them quite alarming news through casual communication."

When committee member Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley and Broughton, suggested the response sounded like an argument not to introduce the app at all, Lord Bethell said: "It was an expectations-management answer."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "There has been a hugely positive reception to the app on the Isle of Wight, with more than 54,000 people downloading the app. Their feedback has been invaluable ahead of rolling out the app nationally soon.

"The app will complement the NHS Test and Trace programme which is already up and running and helping to save lives."

Trials for the contact-tracing app began in May this year. The implementation and design of this app (created by the NHS's digital arm, NHSX, in conjunction with VMware and Zuhlke Engineering) has raised concerns about privacy and efficacy, culminating in allegations that users are not actually anonymous.

The app has been gradually demoted from a crucial part of England's coronavirus response, down to the "cherry on the cake of the system", according to programme head Dido Harding.

Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are all using telephonic contact tracing. Of the three, only Wales has spoken of concrete plans to adopt the NHS COVID-19 digital app. ®

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