The government’s contact tracing app was always going to be DOA

There are times when it’s good to go your own way and innovate. This was never going to be one of them

When I heard that the UK government had decided to abandon its efforts to create a bespoke COVID-19 test and trace app in favour of using the decentralised API developed by Apple and Google, I can’t say I was surprised. In fact, the only thing that shocked me is how long it took to happen.

It was clear pretty much from the outset that this app was never going to make it off the drawing board. Over half of UK smartphone owners have an iPhone, according to Statista, but the centralised data collection and storage methods the app would have been using isn’t supported by Apple. While not as numerous, those using the Google Nexus devices would also have been excluded for the same reason.

Nevertheless, for some unfathomable reason NHSX persevered with their plan to possibly maybe implement track and trace with about 40% of the population through the app, if they were lucky. Then concerns about privacy were raised. Where would our data be stored? Who would have access to it? When would the scheme be sunsetted? Could we guarantee the data and the system wouldn’t be used for alternative purposes once the coronavirus pandemic was over? Awkward questions that elicited awkward non-answers from the government, which blustered about our ‘world beating’ schemes as if confidence and bloodymindedness could shape reality.

And this is before we get onto the multiple, serious security flaws in the app, discovered during its trial on the Isle of Wight.

To add insult to injury, having ticked off “doesn’t work as intended” before launch, it seems it will likely be added to the litany of public sector projects that are delivered late and over budget, too.

What’s so strange and infuriating is it never had to be this way. As much as Matt Hancock may have tried to shift the blame for the app’s precocious downfall onto Apple during yesterday’s evening briefing, it was the government’s own choice to stick to a project that was so obviously doomed to fail. They were warned repeatedly that it was a non-starter. It was pointed out that there was an alternative structure that was not only viable but demonstrated to be working internationally. And yet here we are.

Public sector projects are frequently the butt of jokes, notorious for costing thousands – even millions – of pounds and failing to perform as expected, assuming they don’t fail to materialise at all. The very public spectacle that has been the mismanagement of the track and test app – something that’s been put forward as one of the keys to unlocking the coronavirus quarantine – perhaps gives us a hint that it’s not outlandish demands or impractical designs that cause this, but egos and pride.

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