Concerns raised about transparency of NHS COVID-19 tracing app

Health charity calls for results of trials to be released, amid fears app could exacerbate inequalities.
By Tammy Lovell
08:59 AM

UK charity, the Health Foundation has called for greater transparency around the COVID-19 contact tracing app, which is set to be launched across England and Wales tomorrow.

It has raised concerns that the government has not revealed results of recent trials, which took place in the Isle of Wight and the London Borough of Newham.

The original NHSX app, which was designed to collect data in a centralised database, was abandoned after privacy concerns and a poor success rate in tracking proximity to other devices.

A redesigned version, which uses Google and Apple’s technology, works via Bluetooth to detect other smartphones nearby without using location data or sharing personal information. 

Features of the new app include allowing users to scan QR codes to register visits to hospitality venues, check and report symptoms, book testing, find out test results and check local risk levels.

But the Health Foundation says that in order to build public confidence and encourage people to use the app, there must be evidence that it is effective and ready for mass roll-out. 

Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press, contact tracing apps in Europe have not been widely used due to privacy concerns, technical problems and lack of interest from the public.

WHY IT MATTERS 

Latest NHS test and trace figures reveal that 18,371 new people tested positive for COVID-19 in England between 3 September and 9 September, a substantial increase of 167% compared to the end of August. 

The Health Foundation fears that existing health inequalities could be exacerbated by the app, leaving some demographics at more risk of infection. Ipsos MORI polling carried out on behalf of the charity found that participants from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background, women, the youngest and oldest age groups, routine and skilled manual workers, and the unemployed, had lower awareness about the app.

THE LARGER CONTEXT 

Figures from a Public Accounts Committee hearing about digitisation in the NHS, revealed that the new app is forecast to cost around £25 million, while a further £4 million was spent on the abandoned first app. In total nearly £40m will be spent this financial year on developing the app, according to figures reported in HSJ.

Meanwhile, Scotland recently launched its contact tracing app called Protect Scotland, which has been downloaded by more than 600,000 people.

ON THE RECORD 

Josh Keith, a senior fellow at the Health Foundation, said: “For any major, nation-wide public health intervention it is important the government publishes evidence that it is effective and ready for mass roll-out in advance of its launch.

“This is key for building confidence in the app as people will want to know that it will benefit them and their communities. But any data on the pilots that took place in August have been notably absent, leaving major questions over the app’s effectiveness unanswered.”

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Top row - left to right: Dr Don Rucker, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), HHS Office of the Secretary, US, Tim Kelsey, SVP - Analytics, HIMSS, Australia and Dr Ahmed Balkhair, Saudi Arabia’s Digital Transformation Advisor, Ministry of Health. 

Bottom row: Dr Anne Snowdon, Director of Clinical Research - Analytics, HIMSS, Canada.

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Top Story

Digital Transformation

Top row - left to right: Dr Don Rucker, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), HHS Office of the Secretary, US, Tim Kelsey, SVP - Analytics, HIMSS, Australia and Dr Ahmed Balkhair, Saudi Arabia’s Digital Transformation Advisor, Ministry of Health. 

Bottom row: Dr Anne Snowdon, Director of Clinical Research - Analytics, HIMSS, Canada.