Contact tracing: Still no firm date for when the UK's app will arrive

The NHS contact-tracing app should have been available to download in May, but it still doesn't have a launch date.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

After a series of delays, the UK's contact-tracing app should be available nationally this month, although there is no exact date for the launch, according to the business minister Nadhim Zahawi.

Since it was announced, the app's release has been postponed several times. Initially scheduled to launch across the country in or around mid-May, it was then reported that the tool would be released alongside the manual contact-tracing program, "Test and Trace", at the start of June. 

The second, delayed official launch date has now been missed, and the Test and Trace program went ahead last week, with 25,000 contact-tracers working without the assistance of the app. 

SEE: First responder tech: New tools for the front lines (free PDF)

Speaking on BBC Question Time, Zahawi said: "We are working flat out to make sure the app does everything it needs to do. It is running on the Isle of Wight and we will make sure it is running as soon as we think it is robust. I'd like to think we'll be able to manage it by this month.

"I can't give you an exact date, it would be wrong for me to do so," he added.

Trials for the technology, which automatically warns users if they have been in contact with someone who has shown symptoms of COVID-19, started on the Isle of Wight in early May.

There is little official feedback to date, but some reports have picked up on technical glitches, for example because of the app draining battery life on older iPhones.

The NHS decided to build a homegrown app for contact tracing, instead of using the Bluetooth-based API jointly put forward by Google and Apple. The tech giants created a protocol to help developers easily integrate contact-tracing apps with iOS and Android, while also protecting user privacy.

Although the model followed by the NHS enables more control over the technology, and can better avoid an avalanche of false-positives and false-negatives, it also means that it is harder to make sure that the app runs smoothly on Apple and Google's devices.

Speaking at a press conference last week, the health secretary Matt Hancock dismissed the idea that the delays were caused by technical issues. 

"It is not technical problems," he said, "it is that one of the things we learnt about on the Isle of Wight is that rolling out the system where people are asked to isolate, even if they have no symptoms, starts better when it comes in human form from the contact tracers."

"The app is a complement. It is best brought forward once this system is embedded and that is what we plan to do. It is not because of technical glitches," continued Hancock.

The Test and Trace program has now been in place for a week, but the government has given little indication of a clear launch date for the app.

SEE: Contact-tracing app: How much difference will it really make?

The NHSX started working on a contact-tracing app at the start of April, roughly at the same time as France, which, like the UK, has decided to build its own protocol rather than follow Apple and Google's model.

StopCovid, the French version of a contact-tracing app, launched earlier this week and has since been available to download on Apple's App Store and Google Play. The day after the launch, the French digital secretary Cedric O said that the tool had been downloaded 600,000 times.

Italy also released a contact-tracing app this week dubbed Immuni, which is built on Apple and Google's API. Immuni was downloaded 500,000 times in the first 24 hours of its launch, briefly making it the most downloaded free app in Italy, and has now jumped to one million downloads.

Editorial standards