Coronavirus contact-tracing app to be launched in winter, minister reveals

Statement contradicts comments from Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab that suggested the app would arrive in the coming weeks

A government minister has said that the COVID-19 contact-tracing app “isn’t the priority”, adding that it is unlikely to launch until winter.

Responding to questions at yesterday’s Science and Technology Committee, Lord Bethell, who is minister for Innovation at the Department of Health and Social Care, was unable to provide a specific release date for the app, but insisted that the trial, which has been taking place on the Isle of Wight since early May, “has gone very well indeed”.

“I can't give you a date,” he said. “We are seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn't the priority for us at the moment.”

Lord Bethell’s statement marks a U-turn in the government’s previous assurances that the app would be launched in the coming weeks, having been originally planned to launch in mid-May.

However, at a Downing Street press conference on 18 May, foreign secretary Dominic Raab confirmed that the app had been delayed and would be released "in the weeks ahead".

Last week it was revealed that the app’s developers were finding it challenging to use Bluetooth as a means to estimate distance. Moreover, a trial of a second version of the app had been postponed as MPs considered switching the API for the decentralised model developed by Apple and Google.

The latest reports claim that the project's two lead managers, NHSX's Matthew Gould and Geraint Lewis, are being replaced by former Apple general manager Simon Thompson, who is currently chief product officer at the online grocer Ocado. In addition to joining the app management, Thompson will also hold duties within the Test and Trace team chaired by Baroness Dido Harding.

It is unclear whether the joining of a former Apple executive might foreshadow a decentralisation of the app’s API system.

Despite snubbing Apple and Google’s jointly-developed contact-tracing API due to its insistence on collecting data in a centralised way, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care told IT Pro that the NHS “continues to work constructively with Apple and Google along with many other organisations that are helping the NHS to develop and test the NHS COVID-19 App”.

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