The UK’s Covid-19 Contact-Tracing App Is a Mess (Again)

With problem after problem besetting the app and no government data, it’s hard to know how long public faith in the app will last.
October 14, 2020, 1:00pm
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Just a few days after downloading “NHS Covid-19”—the UK government’s recently released contact-tracing app—Abbie received a notification informing them that they had potentially been exposed to the virus. But, when they actually went to open the notification, it simply disappeared. Abbie, who comes into contact with strangers daily through their job working in a restaurant, was spooked. 

“I have asthma, so I have been very vigilant and careful about social distancing and wearing my mask at all times at work. This notification struck panic into my heart,” Abbie, who asked we didn't use their last name, told Motherboard.

Abbie is just one of thousands of users across England and Wales who have received “ghost notifications” which have been blamed on the app’s underlying exposure notification API developed by Apple and Google. But, the issue has yet to be reported by users of contact-tracing apps in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which rely on the same API. 

The confusing notifications are just one example of how an app described as “world beating” by prime minister Boris Johnson has continued to flop less than a month into its deployment. Critics have pointed to it as indicative of a pandemic response by the government that has often floundered and lacked coherence, leaving the country with a now record surge in cases and the highest death toll in Europe. 

The journey to create a national contact-tracing app has been a bumpy ride, to say the least. Back in March the UK government had already begun developing an app, deciding to forego the decentralized exposure notification API developed by Apple and Google in favor of a centralized approach. The decision was met with considerable backlash, including a letter signed by three hundred experts criticizing the government’s plans for not adequately addressing privacy concerns. 

It also didn’t really work. On iPhones, for example, the app could only detect possible encounters if the phone was unlocked and actively running the software, effectively alienating half of UK smartphone users. In June, the government decided to scrap the app entirely and develop the current one, which now relies on the Apple and Google API. 

It doesn’t appear to be working that much better. After launch, a technical glitch meant that any user who received a test from an NHS laboratory or hospital (over 60,000 people) couldn’t upload their results. Users with “older” phones such as iPhone 6s aren’t able to use the app at all. And, last week Sky News reported that only one notification had been sent out of an outbreak in venues like pubs or cafes–key use cases for the app.

If it is in fact working as intended, the government has yet to release any data to prove it, including the results of two large pilot studies done in the Isle of Wight and Newham. 

“The fact of the matter is we need the government to provide us with the evidence both from the pilots and real-time to assess whether the app is actually effective and if it’s reaching the groups it needs to be,” Josh Keith, a senior data analyst at The Health Foundation, an independent non-profit that carries out health and policy analysis, told Motherboard. “In particular, we don’t know if the app is reaching the groups hardest hit by the virus, like over 65year-olds and BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] communities, who are at the same time, according to our polling, the least likely to use the app.” 

What we do know is that the NHS contact-tracing app has been downloaded 10 million times (~18 percent of the population of England and Wales), far below the 56 percent threshold that experts have estimated is needed for contact-tracing to be effective. Some experts have also questioned how well the underlying Google/Apple API works in the first place, but others like Keith believe the app has the potential to be invaluable. 

With problem after problem besetting the app and no government data, it’s hard to know how long public faith in the app will last–or whether it was even there in the first place. 

“They developed an app to help provide clarity, but it's only made more confusion,” says Abbie. “Now I receive those ghost notifications multiple times a week, and I'm desensitised. I'll continue to use the app and click those notifications on the off chance that they're not lying, but I imagine many people wouldn't pay attention to those notifications anymore and accidentally overlook the real ones.”