Home U.K Covid passport app: Government 'cannot repeat mistakes of Test & Trace'

Covid passport app: Government 'cannot repeat mistakes of Test & Trace'

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The Government said certificates showing coronavirus vaccination, test or immunity status could “provide reassurance” as society begins unlocking and social distancing measures are eased. The Prime Minister said they could help signal a person is not contagious, and Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said it would be “remiss” of the government not to consider the option. Concerns are growing, however, and this week the UK’s equality watchdog said it could create a “two-tier society”.

In updated guidance published by the government on Easter Monday, it was revealed that plans are being formulated to allow individuals “the means to demonstrate their Covid status through a digital and non-digital route”.

The existing NHS app – which is different to the NHS COVID-19 app – is expected to act as the platform into which Covid certification will be built.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) told Express.co.uk that any Covid certification app will be entirely separate from the existing Test and Trace app.

However, some experts have insisted the Test and Trace app – used to log into venues, log test results, check symptoms, and track whether you’ve come into contact with an infected person – needs to be used as a platform upon which any future Covid apps are built.

READ MORE: Covid passport: How would a vaccine passport app work?

When the Test and Trace scheme was launched in 2020, Boris Johnson promised a “world-beating” system.

But a report by a cross-party public accounts committee in March 2021 concluded that there was no evidence to show the £22bn scheme contributed to a meaningful reduction in coronavirus infection levels at all.

In a report which examined the rush to invest in the scheme, the committee challenged ministers to justify the “staggering investment of taxpayers’ money”.

Problems identified with the scheme include a failure to meet demand, contact tracers not being allocated enough work even though cases were rising rapidly, all of which had “no clear impact” on transmission levels.

Mike Rhodes, founder of ConsultMyApp, a consultancy that helps apps optimise functionality, told Express.co.uk the functionality of the COVID-19 app, which forms part of the larger Test and Trace scheme, could have been improved to provide a better-functioning system.

While everyone across the board agrees the app is an essential tool and should continue being used by the public, there could be room for improvement, he claimed.

Mr Rhodes said: “My take is not that the app is a bad idea, but rather that it’s been designed, built and managed badly.

“I would offer the analogy that it’s similar to being stuck on a canoe and offered only a colander to steer you to safety; it’s certainly better than nothing, but clearly isn’t the best tool to get you ashore.”

He said the three areas of concern are the cost (a reported £43 million has been set aside for the app, but the DHSC said £14 million had been used as of September 2020), poor adoption and user retention, engagement and messaging.

Mr Rhodes said: “£43m is neither proportionate to the technical requirements of the app nor the scale by which it is intended to be used.

“Regardless of arguments anyone may use surrounding ‘hidden’ costs of an app build such as support, scale or infrastructure costs, nobody in the app industry can understand the cost.

“The best estimates we have for the analysis, design, build, launch and maintenance of such an app are in the £1m-2m mark.”

He added that an app such as Whatsapp “is more widely adopted in the UK for a fraction of the cost”, and points out that the Covid app is “very little more than a shell with a few web views that show content from a website”, with the underlying technology originally produced by Apple and Google.

Mr Rhodes also said the app should have had greater uptake – the DHSC states 22 million downloads, but data sources have said there are approximately four to five million monthly users, indicating a lot of people don’t actually use the app despite installing it.

Mr Rhodes said: “In this case, it simply needed to ensure firstly that people understood how to use it, and secondly only disturb people when there was something worth disturbing them for. It failed on both accounts.”

He went on to discuss messaging problems faced by the app, including “awful” false alarm messages which notified users of “Possible COVID exposure” and gave no further details.

The DHSC said it was “aware these notifications caused some concern to app users” and said an update performed on October 29 served to “remove these default exposure notifications for those users who have updated their app”.

Moving forward, Mr Rhodes said: “The Test and Trace disaster should now act as a warning to hospitality businesses, and the UK government, about the inadequate mishandling of app management.

“If we are to have a successful digital vaccine passport scheme for hospitality or travel, we must learn from the mistakes of Test and Trace.”

He said it was essential the government was “willing to recognise these mistakes and turn a corner” to ensure this new programme works.

The DHSC said there are currently “no plans to use NHS COVID-19 App for Covid certification of any kind”, and reports suggest the Covid passport app will be different to the Test and Trace app, built into the existing NHS app in England with some structures already in place.

A spokesperson for the department told Express.co.uk the COVID-19 app “had prevented an estimated 600,000 cases between 24 September and the start of January”.

“The more people who download the app the better it works,” they added.

The DHSC pointed to a study carried out by the Alan Turing Institute – listed as one of the developers of the NHS COVID-19 app, which shows “for every one percent increase in app users, the number of coronavirus cases in the population can be reduced by 2.3 percent”.

The department said it was “continuously monitoring and reviewing feedback on the NHS COVID-19 app, undertaking user research and updating the app and our FAQs in response to this and to introduce new features”.

Crucial to the functioning of the app was ensuring user had an up-to-date version, the DHSC said.



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