Much like the British on holiday, NHS COVID-19 app refuses to work with phones using unsupported languages

Issue affects Android devices but fix said to be imminent


The NHS COVID-19 contact-tracing app has run into further trouble by preventing some people with phones using unsupported languages from accessing parts of the service.

The issue – which affected Android devices – meant those with a device language other than the 12 officially supported were presented with a blank screen upon using specific features of the app. This, according to The Guardian, prompted some to uninstall the app.

The NHS COVID-19 app launched with support for just two European languages other than English and Welsh – namely, Romanian and Polish. These are in addition to Somali, Simplified Chinese, Arabic, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Turkish and Urdu.

For context, there were an estimated 2.34 million EU nationals working in the UK during Q4 2019, according to the Office of National Statistics' Labour Force Survey. This doesn't tell the whole story, however, and fails to account for those who are studying or retired in the UK, or are otherwise unemployed.

Putting that into further perspective, the last available census – for 2011 – showed 155,000 Italian passport holders living in the UK, with German and French residents not far behind at 125,000 and 146,000 respectively. Given the population distribution of the UK and immigration trends, it's certain many of those were living in England and Wales, though those numbers may have shrunk in the years since the Brexit vote.

We asked the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) to comment. A spokesperson said: "The NHS COVID-19 App is currently available in a dozen languages and with over 18 million downloads."

A source close to the matter told El Reg the issue was caused between a mismatch between the language keys generated by the Android device and those expected by the back end. This caused elements of the app that are generated server side – like the symptoms checker and the postcode risk level – to malfunction. They added that a fix is expected to arrive soon, potentially as early as tomorrow.

This episode represents another road bump in effort to roll out a contact-tracing app across England and Wales.

Upon launch, the NHS COVID-19 app received criticism for patchy device support, which left many with older phones unable to access the service without paying for a brand new model. The cryptic nature of the app's push notifications was another sore spot, prompting some to fear they've been exposed to the virus. It also sent users erroneous reports about the level of risk in their surrounding areas.

Worse still, the software launched without essential functionality that would allow low-income individuals who were told to self-isolate to claim a £500 government grant. These funds can only be accessed with a code, and are intended for those who meet specific criteria and are unable to work from home.

Still, these hurdles don't quite compare to the issues that dogged NHS COVID-19's predecessor, which failed to get out of the gate, save for a brief trial on the Isle of Wight. Developed by NHSX and VMware, this iteration largely failed to exchange Bluetooth signals between devices – a fundamental component of any app-based contact-tracing service.

This discontinued centralised app was also rife with privacy concerns, particularly when it came to how long data would be stored and used after the end of the pandemic. These fears were exacerbated by the absence of any legal safeguards, with Harriet Harman, chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, warning that existing legislation was inadequate to cover the scope of a contact-tracing app. ®

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