Government downplays importance of app for test, track and trace plan

Matt Hancock has downplayed the importance of the contact tracing app for smartphones, saying the public needed advice “given by human beings” to get “confidence” in the new track and trace system.

Speaking at the daily Downing Street press briefing, the Health Secretary said the delayed contact tracing app would only be brought in “when it’s right to do so”.

“As we launched NHS Test and Trace we were clear we want to embed this system and get confidence that people are following the advice that’s given by human beings before introducing the technological element,” he said.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock
Health Secretary Matt Hancock

The Government has significantly rowed back on claims made when the app was first announced in mid April, when it was said the app would be central to its test, track and trace strategy.

Originally, the app was due to be ready for a full roll out by late May.

Developed by NHSX, the technology arm of the NHS, the app is intended to send a notification warning to the smartphone user when they have come into close proximity with someone infected with Covid-19.

It uses bluetooth low energy technology to work out when another app user who has marked themselves as positive for the virus is in close enough proximity to spread it.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on May 3 that it would be a “huge national effort” to get the public to download the app, saying “it will be the best possible way to help the NHS”.

It was thought that at least 60% of the population needed to download the app to make it effective.

By the end of last month, following a trial on the Isle of Wight, the ministers were seemingly keen to downplay its importance, stressing instead the role of the thousands of contact tracers recruited by the NHS.

Mr Hancock said on May 28: “The pilot on the Isle of Wight showed that the best thing to do was to introduce the human contact tracing, and then build on that once people have got used to the idea that when the NHS Test and Trace system get in contact you’ve got to do quite a big thing, which is to isolate for two weeks.”