Lessons learned from ‘frantic, difficult months’ creating Covid app – NHSX boss

There have been “frantic, difficult months” during the development of a coronavirus contact tracing app but lengthy testing was the right approach, the head of an NHS innovation division has said.

England’s app, which uses bluetooth to keep an anonymous log of those in close proximity, has been held back by delays and currently has no release date in sight.

Officials initially pushed for creating their own system but it was marred by technical issues and concerns about privacy.

The first version was led by NHSX but the keys of a new iteration, which is currently in testing on the Isle of Wight and in the London borough of Newham, using an Apple and Google-designed framework instead, have now been handed over to NHS Test and Trace.

Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX, told London Tech Week that technology is “difficult and unpredictable” but the time taken to carry out testing on two apps was the right thing to do.

A second team began working on Apple and Google’s technology “fairly soon after” it was announced.

“These were frantic, difficult months but I mean, ultimately I think draw several lessons from this,” he said.

“More than any other country, we tested, we tested both together, we tested them in the field to see how people responded to them, we tested them under sort of controlled circumstances so we could see how they perform technically, and it was on the basis of that substantial testing that we took the decision that the app based on the Apple and Google framework was more likely to perform in the way that we needed it to, but that combination of being willing to spin up a team swiftly to try a new technology, to run parallel tracks to make sure that we can see both in action, and then to test substantially, I think was the right thing to do.”

Speaking about NHS Test and Trace taking on the app’s development going forward, Mr Gould said it is “always a wrench when you’ve been working on a project and then you have to hand it over” but believes it is “entirely right” for them to now lead it.

“We’re still involved but it was right that we pass it over to NHS Test and Trace, which was set up as a new body to run the testing and tracing programme and that they take what we did, take the code, take the learnings, and build on it to take it further,” he added.

Apple and Google recently announced a new coronavirus contact tracing system to help public health authorities inform potentially infected people without having to build their own app.