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Even when the UK got its COVID app right, it still got it wrong

A report claims the UK’s contact tracing app is largely failing even in its core function of notifying people who may have caught COVID-19.

The whole point of decentralised contact tracing apps is that they automatically notify you if you have been physically near anyone who announces they have symptoms. If that notification fails to happen then there is no point to the app whatsoever.

Now, according to a Sunday Times report, that is exactly what is happening with the UK version. Apparently the risk threshold was set so high that loads of people who should have been contacted weren’t. This seems like the most basic human error, although the report specifically puts it down to the failure to use a piece of software required to make the app work properly.

While us Telecoms.com hacks don’t claim any great expertise in project management, we’d like to think that if we were in charge of the UK contact tracing app, one of the first tick-boxes we would have included in the preparatory process would have read ‘have we got all the software we need to make it work?’.

This was not a view shared by Conservative establishment figure Dido Harding, who was put in charge of the project because of her extensive app development and epidemiological experience for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious. She does have some telecoms pedigree, having run ISP TalkTalk for a while, but her biggest contribution to its share price seems to have been clearing off.

Ironically, the set of events that contributed to Harding’s resignation as CEO saw TalkTalk constantly leak its customers’ information via a series of security breaches. Now, when the free flow of data is a priority, a Harding-run organization has conspired to restrict it to the point of rendering the whole thing useless.

The UK state, and the NHS in particular, has always been rubbish at anything to do with technology, regardless of who is in power, so none of this should come as a surprise. The fact that Harding and co resisted the decentralised approach for so long signaled the English determination to arse this up, but it’s still hard not to be impressed by how resoundingly successful they have been in achieving that goal.

  • TechXLR8


4 comments

  1. Avatar Sunshine 03/11/2020 @ 3:49 pm

    Is that the Dido Harding who got her current job without an open selection process and whose Conservative MP husband is the UK’s Anti-Corruption champion?

  2. Avatar Jonno 04/11/2020 @ 9:25 am

    I agree with your article but would just add the point that the UK Track and Trace system is operated by the private sector company Serco and not the NHS. The outstanding failures related to the Track and Trace process are all the responsibility of the UK Government and Serco.

      • Avatar Jonno 07/11/2020 @ 2:34 pm

        Hi Scott, the app is branded as NHS but is a component of the UK Test and Trace programme managed by Dido Harding which is operated mainly by the private sector independently of the NHS. This has been highlighted repeatedly in the UK because of the misleading perception of the NHS involvement.

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