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Given the Government's track record on IT projects, development of the NHS Test and Trace app should have been left to the experts, says Genmar IT boss Garry Moore

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Garry Moore, managing director of Genmar IT in Bishop's Stortford, writes a monthly column called Read All About IT for the Indie...

It is all too easy to sit and point fingers at the decisions of those in power, and I guess that for those who desire the trappings of political power, being in charge of making decisions now was not what they had in mind at the start of their careers. This is not a defence of the sometimes astonishingly odd and mixed messages they seem incapable of not releasing, but I for one would not like to be in their shoes through this.

I do believe that the Government, in fact any government, should steer clear of making ill-informed decisions on anything IT-related. I believe their track record alone is proof enough that they have seen little success in this area.

The Department for Transport lost £81m instead of the planned £57m saving on the IT system for the Shared Services Centre. When switched on, DVLA workers were greeted by messages in German and eight months later only two out of seven agencies were using it.

The Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme designed an IT system to allocate subsidies to farms. It ran £60m over budget and delayed payments to farmers, who found it impossible to use due to poor broadband on farms.

In 2013, the NHS abandoned what would have been the world's largest non-military IT system. After eight years of delays and core failures, and a cost to us taxpayers of over £10bn (£3.6bn over budget), it was dumped, but not before it had lost thousands of patient records from Barts NHS Trust, delaying treatment of urgent cases and costing millions in additional staff. This is recognised as the most catastrophic IT failure ever seen by the Government.

All of the above could have been avoided by better planning and expert advice.

In March, at the outset of the pandemic, the Government announced it was building a contact tracing app that would be the cornerstone of its track and trace initiative, be "world-beating" and save thousands of lives.

You must admire its confidence, given its track record. Three months later, with every deadline missed due to plagues of bugs so vast they were almost biblical, it changed its attitude to 'Who needs an app anyway? Never did see the need for one'.

The main issue was its decision to develop a centralised system. This involves storing masses of personal private data and being responsible for its security. Unfortunately, with the NHS's track record in this area being a little shaky, all the privacy campaigners came out of the woodwork.

Early April saw a surprising announcement from Google and Apple, whose software runs all the world's smartphones. They were developing a system that would help bluetooth contact tracing apps work more smoothly, but only if the apps were decentralised and privacy-focused. Oh dear.

The NHS Test and Trace app has been beset with problems
The NHS Test and Trace app has been beset with problems

Did our Government listen to the world's largest and highly successful software giants with unparalleled expertise in this area? No. Unlike Germany, which switched its app immediately to a decentralised model using the Google/Apple system, our Government soldiered on with a trial on the Isle of Wight. Initially, the app just re-emphasised the "stay alert" message and would not even allow test results to be entered. A bit like a piece of paper with "remember to be alert" written on it.

By June, the world-beating cornerstone of our country's fight against the virus had seen the deadline come and go and was then demoted to "the cherry on the cake" rather than the cake.

Then, on June 18, it was announced that the app was a roaring success and was indeed world-beating. Countries all over the world were praising us for our dogged, determined spirit in sticking to our guns, despite the overwhelming evidence that we would fail, and beating a path to our door to plead with us to let them buy our app.

Sorry, just kidding. No, they announced they were abandoning the app and moving to something based on Google and Apple's technology.

The main reason? The app failed to detect 96% of contacts with Apple phones.

Why? Because Apple stated from the outset it would not co-operate with a centralised app.

Why? Because it knew the issues surrounding privacy could not be served worldwide.

Meanwhile Germany, some two weeks after announcing its move to the Google/Apple model, launched its decentralised app to huge success with over 10% of the population downloading in the first few days.

September 24 saw the launch of the new app in the UK with a target of 80% take-up by smartphone users by April 2021, about 60% of the population. Downloading the app is voluntary and designed to alert users if they have been within two metres of someone who has tested positive for more than 15 minutes and who also has the app. It also enables users to check in at venues using the QR code, book a test and advise on self-isolation, including a countdown to when they can leave home. For the app to have any chance of working well, a high take-up is imperative.

The BBC website reported Health Secretary Matt Hancock saying the NHS Covid-19 app had been downloaded 12.4 million times as of noon on September 28, although that may have been five people who have just bought a smartphone for the first time to get the app, downloading it a few million times each.

Garry Moore hopes the app will be improved and the take-up high enough for it to be a reliable tool in the fight against coronavirus in the UK
Garry Moore hopes the app will be improved and the take-up high enough for it to be a reliable tool in the fight against coronavirus in the UK

A few of the bugs are:

  • Users report not being able to log out of a location once logged in, despite leaving and logging in elsewhere – a problem if the app thinks you were in a location with an infected person when you had left hours before.
  • Due to privacy concerns regarding location tracking during the app development, a promise was made not to include this feature. So if you move home from uni it will not change. Apparently it can be changed manually.
  • Apple and Google decided from the outset that users of iPhone models prior to the 6S (2015) are unable to install it, along with other, older phones.
  • Some test results arrived without the necessary code to register on the app. The Government responded saying codes would now be provided with all positive test results via a phone call from the contact tracing team. Unfortunately, there seems to be no way of entering a negative result.
  • More disconcerting, the app can only upload tests from the independent Lighthouse labs, not the NHS or PHE labs, meaning that tens of thousands of positive tests are not being logged. Apparently, Wales managed to get round this issue and developers are saying they have fixed the issue now.

Ironing out bugs like these is common in new software, so fingers crossed the app will be improved and the take-up high enough for it to be a reliable tool in the fight against the pandemic in the UK.

However, one bug that seems to be difficult for them to resolve currently is the virus itself. There seems little evidence that any app may substantially aid in defeating this virus, although it is early days. It is very reliant on take-up and adherence to rules.

But that does not detract from the point that the Government – any government – should not see IT projects as something they can make themselves in their sheds at the weekend. IT is complicated and best left to those who are successful at doing it for a living.

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