The government’s self-acclaimed “world-beating” track and trace app won’t be available for use in London “until the autumn”, and even then, it may not work properly in the capital.
That was the stark assessment of a key tool in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s failing response to the coronavirus pandemic provided to senior figures at the London Assembly yesterday.
The government strategy for easing lockdown depends on having a working smartphone app that can enable digital contact-tracing on a large scale. The contact-tracing app is designed to let people know if they have been in close contact with someone who later reports positive for covid-19, and can pinpoint exactly who needs to be in quarantine and who doesn’t, making it key to easing up social distancing measures.
The app has been undergoing tests on the Isle of Wight since May 5 and was expected to be launched to the rest of the country this month, but Dido Harding, the government’s test and trace chief, and Tory health minister Matt Hancock this week refused to give a national launch date.
Yesterday, Fiona Twycross, London’s deputy mayor for fire and resilience, told a committee session of the London Assembly: “I understand that its due to come out in the autumn… when we get an app that works, I think we’d all support it… we have raised concerns that the app, although it might work on an island, may not work [in London].”
Twycross told Assembly Members that developers needed to address a number of problems with the app, some of which will directly impact on the capital. These include the issue of Bluetooth confusion between residents of tower blocks in the capital.
Now Labour Assembly Member Andrew Dismore has written to Hancock seeking urgent clarification. “We’ve seen from other countries just how vital test and trace is to the fightback against covid-19, Dismore said.
“I fully recognise the importance of getting this right, and when we get the app we’ll make sure we join efforts to push take up. But the problems need addressing urgently and the Health Secretary must be upfront about delays.
“The government told us this system would be ‘world-beating’, how can that be true when predictable issues have been seemingly missed?
“One-third of people who test positive for coronavirus are not being reached by NHS contact tracers. This makes it more urgent to get the app fully operational. This would mean more people can be asked for their contacts, and more contacts told to isolate – protecting everyone’s health.
“This is an opportunity for ministers to prove they are on top of this issue – if they can’t do that, they risk further losing the trust and confidence of Londoners. We don’t want that, we want to be assured they’re protecting the nation’s health, which is why I’m seeking answers today.”
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I don’t think that Bluetooth confusion will be limited to tower blocks, I often see the neighbour’s Macbook on the list of available Bluetooth devices. I wouldn’t be too keen on being told to isolate for 14 days on the basis of some poorly written app.