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UK may switch to a different contact tracing app after trial issues

Written by  May 11, 2020

The UK is prepared to adapt or replace the smartphone contact tracing app it has developed for coronavirus.

If a trial on the Isle of Wight proves that necessary, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said on Sunday.

His comments came after residents on the Isle of Wight encountered problems with the NHS app during the trial that began last week, including some smartphone users receiving alerts that they had been in contact with people suffering from Covid-19, even though they had not gone outside.

The Financial Times reported on Friday that the NHS has begun developing a second contact tracing app after privacy campaigners and technology experts raised concerns about the first one.

The second app will use technology provided by Google and Apple and is being developed in parallel with the first one, in case the government decides to make a switch, according to people briefed on the project.

Asked several times on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show whether the government was preparing to replace the first NHS app, Mr Jenrick said he was not aware of a second one.

“But . . . if we need to adapt our app or move to a different model obviously we will do,” he added.

Mr Jenrick said the government was learning lessons from other contract tracing apps elsewhere in the world.

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“If we need to change our app we will do,” said Mr Jenrick. “That is the point of piloting this before we take it national.”

The UK needs a robust regime for testing people suspected of having Covid-19, and tracing those who have come into contact with them, as part of plans to combat the disease and fully exit the lockdown.

The NHS app being trialled on the Isle of Wight is meant to enable smartphone users who have come into contact with someone who has the virus to receive an alert that would enable them to then self-isolate.

About 50,000 people on the island have downloaded the app, out of a population of 141,000, said Mr Jenrick.

But there have been immediate teething problems, according to residents who have been trailing the app.

Among the most serious were alerts that people reported receiving from the app on Friday, notifying them that they had been in contact with someone infected with Covid-19.

This was despite their not having ventured outdoors since downloading the app when it became available to residents the day before.

More troubling was that the app did not work on phones more than three years old that use Google’s Android operating system.


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Peter Flynn

Senior Editor and self confessed techie, bringing a variety of topical business tech news, help and advice in the UK. I have worked in various fields throughout my career such as a Systems Administrator, Security Consultant and other technical related roles, these days I concentrate on IT journalism and technical writing.

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