Testing the NHS App – Where the Isle of Wight goes, Britain follows

Today is a big day for the Isle of Wight.An NHS app which aims to track the spread of coronavirus will be rolled out for the first time, as part of a trial – Test, Track and Trace, the Government’s new strategy to contain the spread of coronavirus. Located 2 miles off the coast of Hampshire, the Isle of Wight is separated by the Solent from the mainland, the body of water also leading down to Southampton water, and the city and port of Southampton.

Isle of Wight

Driving off the ferry on to the Isle of Wight is like stepping back 50 years in time ,  into a bucolic rural idyll. The island has resorts that have been holiday destinations since Victorian times – Indeed Queen Victoria’s favourite summer residence was Osborne House , where she and her large family spent their summer breaks – indeed she died there in 1901. Also, hundreds of thousands of people will fondly remember family holidays on the Isle of Wight when they were children.

The Island has a stable population of about 130,000 with few visitors or holiday-makers from the mainland at the present time. It is also famous for its annual music festival, and Cowes week, the highlight of the  yatching season.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight

Council and NHS healthcare workers will be the first to try the contact-tracing app, with the rest of the island able to download it from Thursday. If the trial is successful, it could be available nationwide within weeks.

The app aims to quickly trace recent contacts of anyone who tests positive for the virus. It is part of the government’s strategy for coming out of lockdown, which aims to have widespread testing and contact tracing in place to monitor and reduce any future outbreaks. If the trial is successful, the app will be rolled out across the whole of the UK by the middle of May.

Concerns have been raised over privacy, though ministers say the app has been designed with this “front of mind”, whatever that means. Whether it is the ideal location for such an experiment is questionable.

The Island has a large elderly retired population, many of whom will not have smart phones, and the incidence of coronavirus and covid-19 cases is low. As of 4th May, there were 143 cases recorded on the Isle of Wight out of a total population of 141,538 ie only 0.1% of the population, although the number of cases will be greater than that.

Also, the success of the app relies on a significant proportion of the population downloading it – some say at least 60%. Given that the most popular messaging app Whatsapp is used by only 67% of the UK population, there is no guarantee that there will be a high uptake of downloading the NHS app.

Graphic: How app contact tracing works

The new app – published on Apple and Google’s app stores – works by using a Bluetooth connection. It records when two people who have the app are within a certain distance of each other for longer than a specified amount of time. If one of those people later reports having symptoms, all the other app users they came into contact with over the last seven days will be alerted and told to self-isolate.

The small number of cases plus the possible low uptake of downloading the app, the chances of people coming into contact with a person infected with covid-19 who also has the app may be very low ie very few “pings” on their phone. I hope I am wrong.  

Full details are on the full BBC article source : https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52540068

The full Test, Track and Trace Strategy source is :


Damning indictment on the new appUpdate 5th May 19.30

The NHS has bizarrely rejected the decentralised, secure and intelligently designed Apple-Google contact tracing framework in favour of a centralised approach. The decentralised approach is being taken by Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Estonia, Spain, and Ireland. It means all recent contacts will be anonymously, securely stored on your device and never centrally accessible.

Guido has compiled some of the disastrous consequences the UK’s nationalised centralised NHS approach will have:

  1. Privacy: There will be a centralised database of recent contacts of those who are infected. They claim it will be anonymised – we all know meta-data interrelates and could be connected to individuals, creating a huge honey pot for hackers.
  2. Self-reporting: The app will work from self-reported symptoms, rather than based on a test result. This opens it to misuse by people who don’t want to go to work or kids who want to skip class.
  3. Travel and visitors: The UK’s app won’t work when you travel overseas, unlike the decentralised apps that work together. Foreigners’ apps won’t work in the UK.
  4. Northern Irish border: Ireland is using a decentralised app, which won’t interact with the UK’s centralised app, raising practical issues on the border.
  5. Battery: The Apple-Google framework will always run in the background limiting battery usage. People could just switch off the UK’s app if they think it’s draining battery.
  6. Legal: The proposal could break privacy laws by unnecessarily infringing on privacy, leaving it stuck in courts.
  7. Mission creep: There is no law to prevent the Government from repurposing the app on your phone or the data they have for other purposes. It risks being misused and expanded in future.
  8. Background: The app won’t be able to run fully in the background on iPhones or newer Androids because they aren’t using the Apple-Google framework. If two locked devices cross paths they won’t be able to send out a signal, they can only receive a signal from an unlocked device.
  9. Non-app users: Apple and Google are planning to build their framework into the operating system, meaning even if you don’t have the app installed you can opt-in later and have the data available.
  10. Usability: The NHS has a poor track record in IT projects, it’s likely the custom-designed app won’t work particularly well at first. Many people could just lose faith and give up, rendering the whole project useless.

The Government claims a centralised system is necessary for data about the outbreak, however it would still be possible to gather anonymised data from a decentralised app. Matthew Lesh of the Adam Smith Institute tells Guido:

“If a contact tracing app is going to work it must be downloaded by the clear majority of people. An app that unnecessarily centralises data, is clunky to use and drains your battery is unlikely to be particularly appealing. We need to change to a decentralised approach before it’s too late. Lives are on the line.”

It’s not too late…

UPDATE: According to software industry bible The Register the Bluetooth function just won’t work:

Despite what the National Cyber Security Centre has continued to imply, the app will not, as it stands, work all the time on iOS nor Android since version 8. The operating systems won’t allow the tracing application to broadcast its ID via Bluetooth to surrounding devices when it’s running in the background and not in active use. Apple’s iOS forbids it, and newer Google Android versions limit it to a few minutes after the app falls into the background.

That means that unless people have the NHS app running in the foreground and their phones awake most of the time, the fundamental principle underpinning the entire system – that phones detect each other – won’t work.

It will work if people open the app and leave it open and the phone unlocked. But if you close it and forget to reopen it, or the phone falls asleep, the app will not broadcast its ID and no other phones around you will register that you’ve been close by.

Which makes the philosophical / ideological objection to centralised versus decentralised solution irrelevant…

Source – https://order-order.com/2020/05/05/10-problems-nhss-new-coronavirus-app/#comments

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