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‘Loss of Public Trust’ Has Hampered Contact-Tracing App

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A technology expert has warned that the exams fiasco and Dominic Cummings’ breach of the lockdown rules may contribute to the government’s contact-tracing app failing before it even launches.

Back in May, health secretary Matt Hancock described it as being ‘the cherry on the cake but [not] the cake’, however the app has barely been mentioned in recent months.

Furthermore, low uptake of similar apps in other countries suggest that the app may not be as effective as the government hopes.

The app, due to launch on 24 September in England and Wales, uses bluetooth signals from mobile phones to record contact between users and warn those who may have come into contact with someone with COVID-19.

However, for the project to succeed, a large proportion of the public need to install the app. According to Imogen Parker, head of policy at thinktank Ada Lovelace Institute, this could be tough to achieve due to diminished trust after a series of recent scandals.

“In the original modelling, which made the case for a contact tracing app, the magic number to suppress transmission effectively would be 60% - or 80% of smart phones users – downloading, running and adhering to the app,” said Parker. 

“But internationally, the best case scenario we’ve seen has been about 40% uptake, and that’s in small countries like Iceland and Singapore. Examples from larger countries like Germany and Ireland suggest we’re looking more like 18-30% a few weeks after launch.

“In the UK, uptake is going to be related to trust in government. While we were doing some public work on trust over May, you had the Barnard Castle incident; after that you had the A-level algorithm. But the flip side is that the NHS brand itself is incredibly trusted.”

Parker also warned that there is the possibility that a large number of people may be advised to self-isolate due to ‘false positive’ results.

“The best data I’ve seen suggests 45% false positives and 33% false negatives,” said Parker, “but phone proximity isn’t everything. The growing body of evidence about things like the substantially limited risk outside versus inside really matters. We need to make sure the app can identify risk, not just identify phones.”

The most recent version of the app is significantly different from the earlier iteration. Several flaws with the previous version of the app caused the app to be pulled from release at the last minute.

Harry Pererra
Harry Pererra

Harry turns on his experience in journalism and programming to write about the latest news in the world of tech and the environemtn. When he isn’t writing for usave he is working towards his Blue Belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and prefers dogs to cats.

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