The NHS coronavirus contact tracing app will not be rolled out nationwide until winter at the earliest, a senior health minister admitted today.
Lord Bethell, the health minister responsible for the Covid-19 testing programme, said the app – which was supposed to be the UK’s saving grace for easing lockdown – is no longer the Government’s priority.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock had initially told the country the heralded app would be available in mid-May, but officials have since launched the Test and Trace system without it.
Lord Bethell told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that the app being trialled on the Isle of Wight had taken a backseat to manual contact tracing.
Manual contact tracing works by people in call centres phoning those who have been put at risk by a confirmed Covid-19 patient to give them the news.
Lord Bethell said feedback from people on the Isle of Wight found people preferred to receive the ‘alarming’ news from a real person rather than a text or email.
He also admitted there were ‘technical challenges’ that made it difficult to scale the technology up from being used by a few hundreds people to tens of millions.
The app has faced a gauntlet of setbacks since ministers announced it was being developed, with experts raising serious privacy concerns, others saying it wouldn’t work in crowded tower blocks where people live in close proximity, and constant delays putting back its launch date at first by weeks and then months.
Lord Bethell, the health minister responsible for the Covid-19 testing programme, said the app – which was supposed to be the UK’s saving grace – was no longer the Government’s priority
NHS Test and Trace contact tracers failed to reach 33 per cent of people who tested positive for coronavirus
Lord Bethell told MPs: ‘The pilot on the Isle of Wight has gone very well indeed and it has led to some infections being avoided.
‘But one of the things it taught us is that it is the human contact that is most valued by people.
‘There is a danger of being too technological and relying too much on texts and emails and alienating people because you’re telling them quite alarming news through quite casual communication.
‘Whereas [the] call centres we’ve put together have actually worked extremely well. So that is where our focus is at the moment.’
There are around 25,000 human contact tracers currently employed by the Government specifically to track down and reach out to people who have been close to people with the coronavirus.
They are mostly employed by private contractors working on behalf of the Government around the country.
The NHS Test and Trace programme launched last week but ministers are under pressure after failing to reveal how many people have so far been contacted
Lord Bethell continued: ‘Apps around the world have been challenging and I note that the Norwegians, Singaporeans, the French and others have all been working on their app releases.
TEST AND TRACE MISSES 33% OF PEOPLE IN FIRST WEEK
Britain’s test and trace fiasco deepened last week after damning figures showed Number 10’s flagship system only tracked down the contacts of two thirds of Covid-19 patients.
Between May 28 and June 3, 8,117 people who tested positive for the coronavirus were referred to the NHS’s flagship scheme. But shocking statistics show contact tracers could only get information from 67 per cent of them (5,407).
Hundreds did not respond to phone calls or refused to give details of people they had been in contact with, the Department of Health admitted in another blow to the scheme that has been described as ‘shambolic’ by workers.
Baroness Dido Harding — the head of the test and trace scheme — admitted it wasn’t yet ‘at the gold standard we want to be’. She added: ‘Is it completely perfect? No, of course it isn’t.’
She added: ‘We won’t have got all of the contacts. Some were unreachable, some didn’t want to provide contacts, some said “well, I’ve already told my mates I tested positive”.’
But officials say they are happy with test and trace’s performance so far, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock this afternoon repeated his plea for people to use the system, saying it was the ‘civic duty’ of people to take part if they were contacted.
In the first week of the service, 26,985 contacts were successfully reached and 85 per cent agreed to self-isolate for a fortnight. But it means that the army of 25,000 staff hired to only contacted one person each for the whole week, on average.
It is not clear how many of these contacts later tested positive for Covid-19 themselves because, controversially, people are not routinely tested after being contacted.
‘We’re seeking to get something for the winter, but it isn’t a priority for us at the moment.’
‘I won’t argue there are technical challenges with getting the app right, and we are really keen to make sure that we get all aspects of it correct. We’re not feeling great time pressure, we’re focused on getting the right app.’
Ministers launched NHS Test and Trace last month without its key contact tracing app, which is still being trialled on the Isle of Wight after its development was beset by problems.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock previously said he wanted the app to go live nationwide in mid-May but it has been delayed and no fixed date has been given for when it will be made available.
Experts believe the app will be critical to the success of the programme because it digitally logs people’s close contacts.
At the moment the system is entirely reliant on human testimony and physical contact tracing work done by an army of contact tracers.
The app’s contact tracing data would massively speed up the process of finding out who has been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the disease.
It comes after it emerged that Test and Trace failed to contact one third of people who tested positive for coronavirus.
Health Minister Edward Argar blamed the early struggles of the programme on sick people not wanting to pick up the telephone.
The Government published data this month which showed that in the first week of the programme being up and running some 8,117 people who tested positive for Covid-19 in England had their case transferred to the NHS system.
However, while 5,407 (67 per cent) of these people were reached, some 2,710 (33 per cent) did not provide information about their contacts or could not be reached.
The large number of failed attempts to speak to people who tested positive immediately prompted concerns about how effective the programme will be in stopping the spread of coronavirus.
But Mr Argar said that ‘you sometimes simply don’t feel like answering the phone or responding to much at all’ when you are unwell as he highlighted a potentially major flaw in the system.
He told the BBC: ‘Some people won’t necessarily have answered their phone. You and I know what it’s like if you have flu for example, and Covid-19 is a much, much nastier disease than that.
It has launched without the new NHSX app, which uses Bluetooth technology to alert people when they’ve been close to a COVID-19 patient
‘You sometimes simply don’t feel like answering the phone or responding to much at all.’
He added: ‘This is the first week of this new scheme and I think it has started off very, very well.’
Mr Argar said the Government will ‘continue to chase up those who didn’t respond’.
What is the NHS Test and Trace system?
Anyone who develops Covid-associated symptoms is being told to self-isolate and get tested under the test and trace scheme.
Close contacts of those who are found to be positive for the disease are then told to quarantine for 14 days – even if they test negative and are not sick.
Boris Johnson’s government has hired an enormous army of 50,000 people who will attempt to make this huge undertaking possible.
Around 25,000 are contact tracers who will contact people who return positive coronavirus tests to grill them on their movements and their known associates.
The idea is to build a picture of who they have come into contact with and so who might be at risk of a) becoming ill and b) passing it on to more people.
Another 25,000 people in the scheme are testers, who will go out into the community and test these known associates.
Either way, these known associates will be under orders to immediately quarantine, even if the tests they return are negative.
Baroness Dido Harding, executive chairwoman of NHS Test and Trace, said the scheme was central to easing the lockdown further.
She said: ‘NHS Test and Trace is designed to enable the vast majority of us to be able to get on with our lives in a much more normal way.
‘We will be trading national lockdown for individual isolation if we have symptoms.
‘Instead of 60 million people being in national lockdown, a much smaller number of us will be told we need to stay at home, either for seven days if we are ill or 14 days if we have been in close contact.’
The UK’s coronavirus tracing programme will be split into two parts.
People will be ordered to self-isolate for seven days if they develop symptoms. Anyone in the same household will have to do the same.
Those people should then order a coronavirus test online or by calling 119. This will be available for residents in Wales from Saturday.
If a test is positive, that victim must complete seven days in isolation. If the test comes back negative, no one needs to self-isolate.
However, people with a positive test for Covid-19 will then be contacted via text message or email or by phone and told to answer questions.
They will be asked to share phone numbers and email addresses for close contacts.
For those under 18, they will receive a call from the team and a parent or guardian must give permission for the call to continue.
People who have been listed as a person with whom a coronavirus victim has had close contact will receive a text message or an email.
They will then be asked to self-isolate for up to 14 days based on when they last came into contact with that person.
Other household members do not need to self-isolate unless symptoms are present.
If they develop Covid-associated symptoms, all other household members should self-isolate and they should then order a test.
If the test is positive, self-isolation must continue for seven days. If the test is negative, that person should still complete 14 days in case the virus is not showing.