UK counts the cost as Ireland presses ahead with contact-tracing app
In a tale of two countries as different as the fundamental nature of the products involved, the Republic of Ireland is reportedly on the verge of a major acceleration of its plans to launch a contact-tracing app based on the decentralised model that the UK has been forced to adopt after months of trials that have now been revealed as costing nearly £12m.
According to reports by the BBC, Ireland’s health authority plans to press ahead with the launch of a coronavirus contact-tracing app based on application programming interface (API) technology first announced by Apple and Google in mid-April 2020 and subsequently launched in May 2020.
The combined Apple and Google solution includes APIs and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing. In announcing their partnership, the Silicon Valley giants noted that in the spirit of the collaboration, their joint effort was designed to enable the use of technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.
Among the governments taking up this offer has been the Republic of Ireland. According to the BBC, the country’s Health Service Executive will submit a memo to its government this week that would see the launch of the Covid-19 tracker app shortly after.
The report revealed that the app’s development saw two tests carried out, the first by members of the An Garda Siochana police force who volunteered to take part in field trials at the start of June to see how the app would perform in everyday situations, and were seen as an ideal candidate group given the amount of social interactions that the force undertakes during normal duties. The results from the Gardai’s work are said to have given the Irish health executives confidence to roll it out to the public.
However, there were mixed results from the second test involving Trinity College Dublin, whose team investigated performance on public transport, notably on a commuter bus.
The tests found that metal in the vehicle’s structure and fittings caused problems with signal strength of the Bluetooth signals from mobile devices that would be used to calculate the relative distance of people using the app who may be infected with Covid-19.
These misgivings over what may be a fundamental weakness in the nature of Bluetooth technology had been raised in earlier investigations. The new revelations have shown both false-negative results and even no detection at all of phones that were nearer than the alert benchmark distance of two metres.
That said, the Irish app is proceeding and has also been designed to support UK mobile numbers so that visitors crossing the border from Northern Ireland or travelling across from Great Britain can also make use of it.
The benefits of an all-Ireland app have crossed traditional political and sectarian divides. On 4 May, Northern Ireland Assembly health minister Robin Swann MLA urged the creation of an app that could work across the island.
After acknowledging the data privacy concerns regarding the NHSX app, he added that the Northern Ireland authority would examine developing a separate app that could interact with an app in use in the Republic of Ireland which is based on a decentralised structure.
“Ideally, I would like to see one app used across these islands, because it means no matter where an individual is travelling, once we come out of lockdown, whether east-west or north-south, that same platform, that same app, can be utilised,” he said.
Yet on the mainland, the true cost of development of the now to be discontinued contact-tracing app based on a centralised model has been revealed. The UK government announced on 18 June that the development of its coronavirus contact-tracing app was to undergo a fundamental shift away from its much-criticised centralised model and make use of the Google/Apple API.
As politicians waded in to criticise the government of incompetence in the development of an app that has caused no end of controversy since being first announced in April 2020, junior health minister James Bethell told a House of Lords debate that the total cost to the British taxpayer increasing an app stood currently at £11.8m.
Bethell did not disclose whether that this cost was solely attributable to the much-criticised centralised app or included the work that software developer Zuhlke Engineering has been contracted to perform with regard to supplying a managed delivery team to support and run proximity mobile application and services for the UK.
In the Lord’s debate, Bethell said that he wanted to thank the National Health Service’s digital innovation unit, NHSX, which commissioned the app, NHS Digital and others who he said had “worked so hard” on the NHS app, who he said had made “phenomenal progress”.
“I also want to say a profound thanks to those at Apple who are working with us to design an app that suits the British public,” he added. “Both teams have faced enormous challenges and I look forward to their working together to overcome them.”
When pressed as to why did NHSX decide to make a new contact-tracing app based on centralised technology and not collaborate with other countries – such as Germany – which had successfully produced such apps, Bethell replied that the UK had worked closely with other countries, including in Asia, Europe and America, and had worked closely with companies including Apple with whom he asserted the government had opened a dialogue “the moment it launched its app”.
Bethell pinpointed a number of challenges that the government had encountered in the first app’s trials. “There are a number of challenges. A most profound one is our need to use technology to tackle local outbreaks,” he said.
“Without local information on where new cases have originated, it is difficult for the government to achieve that task. We look forward to working with Apple to try to define a use case around that.”
Questioned by colleague Patricia Rawlings as to whether the UK government would endorse the Covid Symptom Study app from King’s College London, now used by 3.5 million people, Bethell remarked that he had been a subscriber since the early days of its launch and that the data it provided had been extremely useful to the government and was used regularly.