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Monday, November 02, 2020

Another Government technology failure undermines anti-Covid fight

If we are to move away from constant lockdowns then the key must surely lie in fast diagnosis through an efficacious testing regime, and prompt tracking and tracing of contacts. That is the holy grail of disease control and on every count the UK government has failed to get it right despite throwing billions of pounds at the problem. It is this incompetence along with an inability to take expert advice that has plunged England into a four-week lockdown, and unless Tory Ministers get their act together they will find themselves having to repeat the exercise many times in months to come.

Of course they are not helped by their failure to get the technology right. The much-vaunted app, which was meant to form the cornerstone of track and trace, is hardly setting the world on fire. One of the reasons for that it now transpires is because it was not set up correctly. The Times reports that this “world-beating” NHS Covid app, downloaded by 19 million people, has systematically failed to send alerts telling people to self-isolate after they came into contact with infected people.

They say that the government have admitted thousands were not contacted by the Test and Trace app, developed under Baroness (Dido) Harding, because it was set at the wrong sensitivity:

For a month, the Department of Health and Social Care failed to use software developed to make the app work properly. Users whose “risk score” should have triggered an alert were not contacted. As a result, a government source said, “shockingly low” numbers of users had been sent warnings since the app was released on September 24.

The source added that people who owned Android devices were among the worst hit. The mobile operating system accounts for more than half of UK phone users and is also disproportionately used by the less well-off, who are most at risk from the virus.

It took officials five weeks to fix the problem and make a voluntary software update available last Thursday.

The latest disclosure may explain why government scientific advisers on Sage recently warned that the £12bn test and trace system, of which the app is an integral part, has had only a “marginal” impact on Covid-19 transmission.

Last week, developers admitted the error in a blog post, which explained that software engineers had created more effective technology ahead of the app’s national launch, meaning it could have been upgraded from the version tested in the Isle of Wight.

“The ‘risk threshold’ was due to be lowered,” wrote Randeep Sidhu and Gaby Appleton, who are leading figures behind the app. However, they continued, “this change did not take place at that time”.

Although 19 million people use the app, officials have refused to say how many people have been told to isolate through it.

It is little wonder that people have no confidence in this system, and without that confidence it cannot work effectively.
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