The rise and fall of Hancock’s homegrown tracing app
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The second Tuesday in May did not start well for Matt Hancock.
In a round of morning media interviews, the British health secretary was told his care home strategy had failed, the government’s plans to get people back to work were confusing and its latest social-distancing rules were “utterly bonkers”.
But suddenly he began to make far more cheering news. A homegrown coronavirus tracing app he had been championing would be “rolled out nationwide by end of next week”, The Times reported.
There was just one problem: no one had told all the people trying to build the app. “What the fuck?” one wrote to a colleague after seeing the news. “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
That deadline was never met, but there was worse to come. Last Thursday, the 160 people who had spent three months working 18-hour days and seven-day weeks on the app were invited to a video call with Dido Harding, the head of the UK’s test and tracing programme.
Their project, she said, was being abandoned. The government had decided to develop a rival one based on Apple and Google’s technology. People were shocked — and furious.
One person briefed on the meeting said a developer claimed the decision amounted to murder: without the app, thousands of lives were at risk. That claim is unfounded. But it is clear that the UK, one of the countries that has struggled hardest to contain Covid-19, is once again out on a limb.
A number of places around the world, from Germany to Gibraltar, have rolled out a tracing app. Just last month, documents released by the British government’s top scientific advisers showed that experts assumed the UK’s track and trace strategy would “rely heavily on the uptake and use of an app”. As Mr Hancock said in May, the new technology would help “hunt down and isolate the virus so it’s unable to reproduce”.
But having spent £12m on development, the UK now has no such tool. Nor does it have a firm date for when it might get one, even though new infections are still averaging more than 1,000 a day and the recent heatwaves have stoked fears of a spike after crowds flouted social-distancing rules and flocked to beaches this week.
The explanations for this predicament reveal much about the response to Covid-19 by Boris Johnson’s government.
Interviews with more than 20 people involved in the app’s development tell a story of jolting shifts in priorities and changing lines of command, wrapped in exaggerated claims of progress.
At the heart of the fiasco, however, lies a problem that has dogged the UK’s efforts from the beginning of the pandemic: the painfully slow development of an adequate testing system.
The UK was one of the first western countries to start building a phone app. By mid-March, work was under way at NHSX, a body reporting to the health department. Mr Hancock, a digital enthusiast, set it up last year to drag the notoriously analogue NHS into the 21st century.
Headed by a former diplomat, Matthew Gould, it soon discovered, as other nations would, that the task was far from simple.
The app would have to rely on a Bluetooth system that was designed for pairing a smartphone with a wireless headset rather than trigger an alert that a stranger close to you was carrying a potentially fatal virus.
Figuring out how to repurpose this technology without draining a phone’s battery was just one of the early hurdles faced by developers around the world.
In the UK, however, there was another challenge. In other nations, the app was deployed as a back-up in established national systems where widespread testing helped teams of contact tracers track down those infected.
This was impossible in the UK, which was struggling to process more than 8,000 tests a day in March.
That meant the British app had to be shaped in a distinctive way, said several people involved in the early stages of its development.
Instead of triggering alerts about people who had tested positive for Covid-19, developers were initially told to build an app based on people reporting virus symptoms.
This had a ripple effect that ate up developers’ time, those familiar with the process said. First, an algorithm had to be built to try to ensure someone who claimed to have a cough or fever was telling the truth.
This, in turn, meant a database had to be built to hold and process huge amounts of confidential patient symptom data that would then have to be encrypted, anonymised and protected from hackers.
Privacy campaigners were alarmed by the prospect of a trove of data. Yet it was precisely what public health researchers hoped the app would produce.
“If you keep data in an anonymised form and you make sure that it’s used appropriately for research, that actually might save lives in the future,” Michael Parker, a bioethics expert at Oxford university who advised the team developing the app, told the Financial Times this year.
But in early April, there was unexpected news from Silicon Valley. Google and Apple had joined forces to build their own contact tracing technology that promised to do a better job of protecting people’s privacy.
By late April, Germany had opted for the Google and Apple system. Italy, Denmark, Japan and Saudi Arabia were among those countries that followed.
But Britain seemed determined to keep going its own way. In early May, Mr Hancock said the app would be tested on the Isle of Wight. “Where the Isle of Wight leads, Britain follows,” he said.
On the app team, however, the ride was bumpier.
As knowledge about Covid-19 grew, the app had to accommodate a wider range of symptoms, such as the loss of a sense of smell. One official said people in Whitehall seemed to think this was easy. In fact, adding each new symptom consumed five days of coding time.
That was not all. As the government’s grip on testing improved, the developers’ brief changed again. Now the app had to know if a user had tested positive, not just developed a cough.
The process was starting to bear the hallmarks of a worryingly familiar phenomenon. It had “all the features of a classic government IT project about it”, said Alan Woodward, a professor of computer science at the University of Surrey.
“The requirements changed as they went along. The developers built what they were asked to build and then the brief was altered and the previous work was rendered nugatory.”
Behind the scenes, bigger shifts were under way.
By May, a new team inside NHSX had been quietly set up to work on a second version of the app using Apple and Google’s technology. The government did its best to play down its significance but things were about to change.
There was a new face in the government’s Covid chain of command: Baroness Harding. The appointment of the former TalkTalk chief executive marked a turning point, according to insiders who described her as “gripping” the test and trace programme.
Reporting to the prime minister rather than Mr Hancock, she had soon publicly relegated the app to a secondary line of defence in the fight against coronavirus, declaring it merely “the cherry on the cake, rather than the cake itself”.
What few people knew at the time was that extensive field tests were taking place in military bases to compare the NHSX app with a version using Google and Apple’s system.
By June 12 the results reached the desks of officials who said they were decisive.
The NHSX app detected just 4 per cent of iPhones it came into contact with, compared with 75 per cent of devices using the rival Android operating system. In contrast, the Apple-Google system detected 99 per cent of iPhones.
The figures were “hard to argue with”, said one official. The UK app was essentially dead.
As of this week, it is unclear what sort of app might ever emerge, or when. The Department of Health and Social Care declined to comment for this article. But one official said launching an app now “could put public health at risk”, adding: “We need to get this right for the British public rather than launching tech for tech’s sake.”
For the moment, the UK will work with Apple and Google on Bluetooth improvements to produce a new app. Officials said this was safer than launching a flawed design on an anxious public.
The government, meanwhile, has deployed familiar brio to portray its decision as a feature rather than a bug, pointing to the many problems countries with an app have encountered, from poor take-up to fast-draining phone batteries.
The British territory started working on a tracing app based on open source code developed by the Irish government and the Google-Apple platform in early May. As the UK was taking the decision to scrap its £12m app effort on June 18, Gibraltar launched its version.
Officials estimate a fifth of the population has downloaded it so far, at a cost of less than £100,000.
Ultimately, however, the cost of the abandoned UK app may pale in comparison with the absence of the technology itself.
“I think it is an embarrassment that we have no app by now,” said Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder. “Even if imperfect, the answer to Covid-19 has to be about reducing transmission and it is a scandal that we are not using technology to get there faster.”
Prof Woodward said the argument for an app seemed stronger as lockdowns are being eased. “Even if the technology isn’t perfect,” he said, “isn’t it better to have something rather than nothing?”
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