UK COVID-19 Update: U-Turn as COVID App Abandoned

Peter Russell

June 19, 2020

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

U-Turn as COVID App Abandoned

NHS England announced it was abandoning its bespoke contact tracing app in favour of a model jointly promoted by Apple and Google which has been seen as more privacy-centric.

The announcement represented a major U-turn by the Government which had insisted that its CV19 app, developed by NHSX, the digital arm of the NHS, would be best suited to help contain the pandemic.

The app, first trialled on a military base, and then on the Isle of Wight, was notably absent when test and trace was launched by ministers.

'Apple Won't Change'

During Thursday's daily Downing Street briefing, Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, said "technical barriers" had made the imminent launch of the app not possible at this time.

In a swipe at one of the media giants, Mr Hancock said "our app won't work because Apple won't change their system", believed to be a reference to privacy restrictions built into IOS software.

However, officials had concluded that a straight switch to their model would not solve all the problems because the Apple model was not able to measure distance between people accurately enough.

The demise of the app seemed inevitable when Lord Bethell of Romford, the minister responsible for the app, said on Wednesday that it was no longer a priority for the Government.

Mr Hancock had predicted early last month that the app would be rolled out nationally in mid-May.

But Lord Bethell said that the Government did not want to "poison the pool" by rushing something out that was not "quite right", The Guardian reported.

At the end of last month, Baroness Dido Harding called the app the "cherry on the cake, not the cake itself", prompting speculation that the technology had run into problems.

The decision mirrored Germany's decision earlier this year when it opted for the off-the-shelf approach to digital tracing.

In common with the Apple and Google model, CV19 uses Bluetooth low energy transmissions to log the distance between an individual's smartphone and other phones that have the app installed.

If a user became unwell, they could allow the app to inform the NHS which would assess symptoms for COVID-19 risk.  If the disease was suspected, an alert would be relayed to other app users who had been in close contact with the individual over the previous few days.

However, the two systems took a different approach. The decentralised approach by Apple and Google meant that tracing and alerting took place between individual handsets, while the NHS model involved uploading information to a central database which would put the health service in control of who was alerted to risk.

In a blog, Google said it wanted to put privacy, transparency, and consent at the heart of its efforts.

Commenting on the Government's U-turn, Dr Scott McLachlan, postdoctoral research assistant at Queen Mary University of London, said the original app was only compatible with recent Android smartphones and was prone to false alarms.

"Bluetooth is not a guaranteed reliable technology for this solution," he told the Science Media Centre.

Test and Trace Statistics

The Department of Health and Social Care published updated statistics from the NHS Test and Trace service in England, covering the period 28th May to 10th June 2020.

More than one in four people who tested positive could not be reached by the system, the BBC reported.

The data showed that in the first two weeks of operation, test and trace was given the details of 14,000 people to follow up. However, fewer than 10,200 could be reached, either because of incorrect contact details, or because contacts did not return calls.

Prof Keith Neal, emeritus professor of the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, said that refusal to cooperate with the system would be "a potentially serious and very selfish attitude".

Prof James Naismith director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, pointed out that the test and trace system was still in its infancy. "I would urge that thought is given to supporting people, financially and socially, who are being asked to isolate," he told the Science Media Centre. "Isolation must never be seen as a punishment or be a heavy burden."

Daily Deaths and Data

Another 135 UK COVID-19 deaths were announced, taking the total to 42,288.

There were 136,516 tests counted. This figure includes home tests that have been sent out but not yet processed. This takes the total tests to 7,250,555.

Figures for the number of people tested were last given on Friday 22nd May.

Another 1218 positive cases were reported today taking the total UK confirmed cases to  300,469.

Staying Indoors

People were continuing to spend several days a week at home, despite lockdown measures being eased, a study found.

The research by University College London showed that adults on average stayed at home or in their gardens 4 days a week at the start of lockdown, when one daily exercise and essential trip were allowed.

However, after lockdown measures were eased, people were still spending 2 or 3 days a week not leaving their homes.

Lead author, Dr Daisy Fancourt, said: "This could be in response to poorer weather, or continued worries about the virus."

Across the last 3 months, people with lower household incomes and those with a mental health diagnosis had spent the most time within their homes.

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.