How many Brits have deleted life-saving track and trace app from their phones? No idea, junior minister tells MPs

After a troubled birth, infamous but effective code becomes an inconvience


UK government has admitted it is in the dark about how many of the citizens who downloaded the NHS Test and Trace App have since deleted it or switched off Bluetooth for the app, rendering it obsolete.

The costly App, which finally came to market last summer after dithering by politicians, is designed to help combat the spread of Covid-19 by registering entry into a venue where close proximity is likely, pinging other users within Bluetooth range, and advising on self-isolation should the users come close to someone testing positive for COVID-19.

Yet in a telling written answer to Parliament yesterday, Jo Churchill, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Care, said:

"We do not hold data on the number of people who have deleted the app or the number of people with the app but with Bluetooth turned off. We are currently considering what further metrics we may be able to publish about app usage."

The app is coming under pressure for doing the very thing it was designed to do. As cases of COVID-19 surge in the UK with the economy reopening on 19 July, the code is telling more and more people to self-isolate.

A poll published by The Guardian found that around one in five one-time app users had already deleted it; among those aged 18-34 that ratio rose to around a third.

The motivation for scrubbing the inconvenient bit of code is clear: people needing to work.

The Financial Times has reported that as the particularly virulent delta variant sweeps across parts of the UK, many companies are missing a fifth of their staff due to self-isolation.

"Labour shortages have hit factories, shops and warehouses, with workers 'pinged' by the NHS Covid app and told to self-isolate for 10 days if they have come into contact with an infected person," the pink newspaper said.

The industry lobby group CBI is also pressuring the government to change the rules for self-isolation when individuals come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Given the app's difficult gestation, in which an attempt to build a central database was abandoned in favour of a distributed approach (from dominant mobile operating system vendors Apple and Google), it is alarming that the government is seemingly uninterested in how it is being used, especially as it has proved effective.

According to a study in Nature earlier this year, the app and resulting self-isolation may have avoided 284,000 cases from its launch on 24 September 2020 to the end of December 2020, during a time when it was used regularly by approximately 16.5 million people or 28 per cent of the total population in Britain.

The £22bn Test and Trace programme was, however, criticised in March by the Public Accounts Committee - a spending watchdog comprised of MPs from across the political divides - for failing to limit the number of lockdowns. MPs said there was "no clear evidence" to judge its success, i.e - no data.

Who is using the simple and potentially life-saving app now is anyone's guess, according to Churchill.

"Data saves lives" was the mantra of former UK health secretary Matt Hancock before a CCTV camera revealed to world+dog his predilection for indiscretion. Data saves lives, it seems, unless it is a political or economic inconvenience, in which case the government seems to think it best to move on. ®

It's ok people, Deloitte to the rescue...

Deloitte has been awarded a £24m 9-month extension to “disaggregate” its work on COVID-19 test platform. The IT and consultancy megacorp bagged the contract extension without competition to support NHS Digital’s Covid-19 National Test Service.

Contract extension, until April 2022, is for “digital solution design, build and live service of a digital platform, ordering portals and mobile applications,” according to the tender notice.

“The services provided under this contract support the digital and data journey for COVID-19 testing, currently amounting to millions of tests each week, and have introduced new capabilities as the testing programme has evolved to support the pandemic response,” the document said.

NHS Digital said the work under the contract would now include “the provision of services to disaggregate the solution, removing interdependencies and facilitating the formation of independent services capable of transition to replacement suppliers”.

However, only one supplier is in line for that work, “given the bespoke nature of the digital testing platform”.

NHS Digital awarded the £51m IT contract to Deloitte in February without prior notice or competition at the same time the UK government faced a legal challenge for Deloitte’s work on a "management" contract. The total value of the COVID-19 work now stands at £75m. Nice work if you can get it.

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