Test and trace app 'so broken it makes mockery of the system,' says LBC's tech correspondent

26 September 2020, 19:26 | Updated: 27 September 2020, 11:10

The NHS app was released on Thursday, but users have pointed out a glaring flaw
The NHS app was released on Thursday, but users have pointed out a glaring flaw. Picture: PA

By Will Guyatt, technology correspondent

It’s rare I turn into a young Nick Ferrari, but what the hell is going on with our test and trace app?

In almost two decades of covering the world of technology, I cannot recall such an important launch as messy as this.

If the five month delay in launching a test and trace app for England and Wales was already a pig’s ear, I haven’t yet worked out which piece of the pig this latest debacle is?

Who in their right mind launches an app that doesn’t recognise test results from our own hospitals? The Department for Health and Social Care, it appears.

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The app is so inherently broken, this is making a mockery of the entire system - it forces those with positive tests from not reporting it in the app, and it means those who test negative are still being advised to self-isolate, triggering requests for any people with which they come into contact.

Until this is fixed, the app is essentially spraying out false signals - causing both false negative and positive results - imagine those Facebook videos where someone loses control of a high pressure hose, and the reality is pretty close to that.

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As I write this, we have no statement from the government - but my crystal ball tells me they will say “due to rising virus cases, it was more important to launch the app than wait for a fix.”

This is wrong and misleading - not only is the app not working properly, this seriously damages public confidence in the app, and crushes our trust in the government’s abilities.

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Around 4 million people have downloaded the app so far, but judging by what I’ve heard in David Lammy’s fiery phone-in on his LBC show today, a growing number of us have chosen to swerve it because we simply don’t trust the government or its ability to launch an app.

Given we have been waiting for five months for a test and trace app, I cannot see a logical explanation for why they couldn’t have waited another five days or so to be in a position where they were able to dish out codes from test results that would work with the app, and stop this whole sorry mess before it became breaking news.

Someone in the government knew the app was broken at launch, yet still gave the nod for it to launch. It’s time they stand up and go.

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The app we have today could easily have existed several months ago, just as soon as Google and Apple made a simple framework available to deliver a contact tracing app. The UK government was given ample heads up of the plan, and for all intents and purposes, the service manual of how to use it.

Instead of building it, our government experts told the world it wasn’t good enough - and they would do better. Now, almost five months on, we’ve got an app that doesn’t do anything different - and currently doesn’t even do the things it’s been designed to do.

To all those LBC listeners telling me to shut up, stop criticising the government, and encourage people to download the app, I’m only going to do one of those three things. Nobody should forget that Matt Hancock promised a “world leading test and trace app” and looked to throw tech companies under the bus.

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We’ve ended up with a dog’s breakfast that currently deserves all the 1-star reviews it’s receiving on app store platforms.

That said, I’m going to end on a positive - once you’ve read this, go and download the app. If the government can fix the mess and the app proves effective in saving just one life, it has to be worth it.