UK’s Covid-19 app may ditch contact-tracing functionality

7 Aug 2020

Image: © yurolaitsalbert/

After delays in the development of its contact-tracing app, the UK government is preparing for a limited roll-out that could see the app launch without its initially planned core functionality.

At the beginning of July, the Republic of Ireland’s Covid-19 contact-tracing app was launched and, in the time since, has been downloaded more than 1.5m times.

Almost a month later, Northern Ireland launched its own Covid-19 contact-tracing app, StopCovid NI, which is interoperable across the border in Ireland.

The app works similarly to the one launched in the Republic of Ireland and was developed by NearForm, the Waterford-based software company behind the Republic’s contact-tracing app.

While contact-tracing technology is now available all over the island of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales have yet to introduce a contact-tracing app and now there are questions over whether the contact-tracing functionality will even be included in the long-awaited app.

According to some reports, ministers in the UK want to launch a scaled-back version of the app, as they believe that it is not accurate enough to be used for effective contact-tracing.

The current situation in England

The journey the UK has been on during the development of its contact-tracing technology has been anything but straightforward.

At first, the UK government insisted on building its own centralised app, without the Apple-Google Exposure Notification API that these apps rely on in countries such as Ireland and Germany.

Germany chose the Apple-Google API after realising that its own centralised app would have required iPhones to have the app unlocked and running in the foreground to be effective, which is not only inconvenient for iPhone users, but would drain the batteries of the devices more quickly.

The UK later took a sudden U-turn and decided to opt into the Apple-Google API, delaying the release of a functional contact-tracing app in England, Wales and Scotland. Now, almost two months after the UK’s U-turn, officials are preparing to announce the launch of the app within the next few days.

At first, the app will only be available as part of a limited roll-out. The app will allow users to scan QR codes to log venue visits, while implementing Apple and Google’s method of detecting other smartphones nearby.

The absence of contact-tracing

According to The Times, ministers in the UK do not want to include the contact-tracing functionality as the developers have struggled to create a reliable enough system for the app to direct users to self-isolate for 14 days.

The UK government has allegedly blamed this on the Apple-Google API, suggesting that it does not provide enough data to accurately calculate exposure risk through Bluetooth.

The Times said that instead of offering contact-tracing, the information gathered by Bluetooth could be used to give users a rough count of how many people they have stood within two metres of for more than 15 minutes each day, to help spot instances where they could have been more cautious.

The app is also trialling a feature that will provide users with information on infection levels in their locality, which allows them to use their personal information to calculate risk score. The Times suggested that the app will now begin as an individualised information and advice service, rather than a contact-tracing platform.

Last month, Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) told the BBC that 91 people had successfully received a “close contact exposure alert” since the contact-tracing app was launched.

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic