Abandoned NHS contact tracing app cost almost £12 million

23 June 2020, 11:35

The NHSx app cost almost £12 million to develop
The NHSx app cost almost £12 million to develop. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

The NHSx contact tracing app which the Government abandoned has cost the taxpayer almost £12 million, the House of Lords has heard.

Lord Bethell, a health minister, revealed the cost for the project as Boris Johnson's Government was accused of "sheer incompetence" and a "lack of humility" following the U-turn.

The criticism came after the Department of Health outlined the new approach on Thursday by moving development of the existing NHSx coronavirus app to a new system using Apple and Google, in what is seen as the latest in a string of government U-turns.

The Covid-19 contact-tracing app, which was being trialled on the Isle of Wight since the beginning of May, appears to have been switched with a more privacy-focused and decentralised model.

The UK had been an outlier in not using the Apple/Google model, with a number of other nations - including Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the Republic of Ireland - all using the software built by the tech giants.

Tackled over the cost of the "technical fiasco" to taxpayers in the House of Lords, Lord Bethell said the amount to date was £11.8 million.

Pressing the Government over the volte-face, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Clement-Jones highlighted the anger felt at the "sheer incompetence and lack of humility" over the NHSX debacle.

He said: "It's go it alone approach and attempt to shift the blame onto tech companies simply won't wash.

"Isn't it time the Government just accepted the fact that we can't develop our own app and go straight to adopt the available interface... behind the off-the-shelf, decentralised app now in widespread use and introduced in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Denmark where they appear to be working well."

But striking an unrepentant tone, Lord Bethell said: "I would like to say a profound thanks to those at NHSX, NHS Digital and others who have worked so hard on the NHS app.

"They have made phenomenal progress and their hard work is hugely appreciated.

"I would also like to say a profound thanks to those at Apple who are working with us to design an app that suits the British public.

"Both teams have faced enormous challenges and I look forward to the fact that they are working together to overcome them."

There was also a veiled rebuke over the handling of the project from the Government's own benches.

Tory former minister Lord Duncan of Springbank said: "I do feel that confidence in the Government has been shaken by this particular approach."

He added: "How do we anticipate this approach now being rolled out across the four nations of the UK? How will they interface one with another?"

Lord Bethell said: "In all aspects of our battle against Covid we have sought a four nations approach.

"We hope very much indeed to work together for one solution. I am aware that other nations are looking at their own options but it is our hope that in time they will all come together for one solution."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We were absolutely right to invest in the Isle of Wight phase – it has provided us with valuable information that we will now use to build an app that is right for the British public.

“Our rigorous testing identified issues both with our app and the Google/Apple API, which did not estimate distance in the way we required. So if we had simply followed their approach we would be no further towards building a viable product.

“We are now working on a solution that brings together what we have learned as we develop a new version of an app to support the entire NHS Test and Trace service.”