The NHS Covid App, which has been put out of its misery at the age of three, was an example of the Government thinking that technology is the answer to every problem, only to then waste billions on an IT project that doesn’t work.
The idea was simple. If at least 50% of the U.K. population would install an app on their phones, it could use Bluetooth to detect proximity of its users and alert them if they had been close to someone who later tested positive for COVID-19. What could possibly go wrong?
An NHSX development team was assembled in March 2020 and it only took two months for it to show all the signs of a typical government IT project. It started with huge publicity in the press and broadcast media and progressed to the inevitable pilot scheme (on the Isle of Wight) quickly followed by Matt Hancock having to backpedal on the rollout date. Heads rolled at NHSX with managers Matthew Gould and Geraint Lewis ‘stepping back’, former Ocado and Apple executive Simon Thompson being drafted in, and development transferred to the Switzerland-based Zühlke Group. Personnel was only one of its problems. It had a centralised design which raised security concerns and led to a public letter of concern from security experts. More damning was the problem that it could not access Bluetooth with the screen locked. Solving that problem would mean doing things the way Apple and Google wanted them done and that ruled out a centralised design. So, by the end of June the app had been scrapped and Lord Bethell could only say that the release would be some time “in the winter”. Under intense media pressure the app was redesigned according to Apple and Google’s specifications and by September 24th it was ready for launch.
With wild claims such as “for every one to two people who download the app, an infection could be prevented” it enjoyed six million downloads on its first day with the app second only to Zoom in U.K. app stores. Even if you didn’t want it on your phone, it became hard to avoid with scanners in shops, pubs and restaurants becoming part of all our lives. Was venue check-in effective? As I pointed out at the time in Lockdown Sceptics, despite millions of check-ins in thousands of venues, only four had been flagged as risky by the end of October 2020. But never mind the data, NHSX claimed that venue QR codes “will help avoid the reintroduction of lockdown measures and support the country to return to a normal way of life”. Two further national lockdowns followed.
Not living up to politicians’ propaganda is one thing; doing serious damage to the economy is another. By July 2021, a combination of mass adoption of the app and relaxation of social distancing following ‘Freedom Day’ led to what became known as the pingdemic. So many people were isolating that trains were cancelled through lack of staff and there were food shortages in supermarkets. Even the Prime Minister had to take time out. The Chief Executive of M&S said the chain had “a major issue” and the Managing Director of Iceland said: “We are in the unprecedented position of having to close stores due to staff absences – not because of COVID-19, but because of a broken and disruptive Track and Trace app.”
Despite causing economic and social carnage the app was not disabled or withdrawn. Like so many other policies rolled out during the pandemic, it was a simplistic idea that the Government went all-in on and then could not abandon despite all the evidence against. April 27th 2023 will be its last day, but will anyone mourn its passing?
The author is a tech wizard who would prefer to remain anonymous. He has written many anonymous articles for this site.