NHS COVID app ‘failed to record potential exposures due to error’

Published: 1 November 2020

Post Desk : An error with the NHS COVID app has left potentially thousands of people unaware that they were exposed to the coronavirus and needed to self-isolate.

More than 19 million people have downloaded the English contact-tracing app since 24 September, but it has had the wrong settings to record whether these people were close enough to each other to transmit the coronavirus.

The revelation comes as Michael Gove told Sophy Ridge on Sunday that England’s month-long lockdown could be extended beyond 2 December.

“Shockingly low” numbers of users have been sent warnings about potential exposures due to the app having the wrong risk threshold set for recording contacts between people, The Sunday Times reported.

While the technology should have been recognising people as having been in close enough proximity for a transmission, it had instead recorded that they were too far away for the virus to be passed between them.

According to The Sunday Times’ source, Android devices have been the worst impacted – meaning the error has had a disproportionate impact on low-income smartphone owners.

The issue was first admitted in a blog post last week which confirmed that although the developers knew the risk threshold needed to be higher than had been originally designed, it had not been updated ahead of the national release.

Due to the privacy protections designed into the joint Google-Apple technology used by NHS England’s app, it is not possible to know how many people have been – or haven’t been – told to self-isolate.

Apps based on different technology in the devolved administrations of Scotland and Northern Ireland have allowed authorities to contact 10,000 and 16,000 people respectively.

A spokesperson for the Department for Health and Social Care said its app was “the only app in the world using the latest Google-Apple technology to better gauge distance to identify those most at risk, and is deemed ‘excellent’ by international standards.

“As previously published, we anticipate more app users who are at high risk of having caught the virus will receive a notification to self-isolate, and that will be to everyone’s long term benefit by reducing the chances of those with the virus passing it on to others.”