A much-heralded app to trace the contacts of people with coronavirus may not be ready until the winter and is no longer a government “priority”, a health minister has confirmed.
Lord Bethell, who is leading the Department of Health and Social Care’s work on the NHS app, said the slow rollout of the software was partly motivated by a fear of “freaking out” the public.
Health secretary Matt Hancock had initially earmarked a late-May launch for the government-backed app, which was intended to play a key role in the national “test and trace” strategy to combat Covid-19.
The cabinet minister said at the time that the public had a "duty" to download the application – currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight – to their devices when it becomes available.
Government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said in May that he expected the test, track and trace programme to do much of the "heavy lifting" needed to prevent disease outbreaks as lockdown and social-distancing measures are eased.
And advisers to government who sit on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies have siad
Jeremy Farrar, an internationally-renowned biologist and director of the medical research funder the Wellcome Trust, said test, track and trace needed to be "fully working" – meaning able to respond immediately to a surge in infections, locally responsive and able to produce rapid results – before lockdown measures can be safely lifted.
While tens of thousands of contact tracers have now been hired and are getting in touch with the contacts of those testing positive for Covid-19, Downing Street has repeatedly refused to provide an update on when the app itself will launch.
And Lord Bethell told the Commons Science and Technology Committee on Wednesday: “We are seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn't a priority for us at the moment."
Pressed for details on the trial, he said: “The app pilot in the Isle of Wight has gone very well indeed, and it has led to some infections being avoided.”
But he argued that the scheme so far had revealed “human contact” was “most valued” by people worried about the virus.
“There is a danger in being too technological and relying too much on texts and emails, and alienating or freaking out people because you are telling them quite alarming news through quite casual communication,” the minister said.
And he told MPs: “The call centres we have put together actually have worked extremely well.
“We have had to deal with people working from home on new computer systems, but the effectiveness has been proven and we are confident about that.
“That's where our focus is at the moment.”