Keir Starmer dismisses Boris Johnson's claim no country has contact-tracing app

24 June 2020, 14:41

Keir Starmer said Germany's app has been downloaded 12 million times
Keir Starmer said Germany's app has been downloaded 12 million times. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Sir Keir Starmer has dismissed Boris Johnson's claim that no country has a working test and trace app after 12 million people download Germany's version.

The prime minister faced backlash in the House of Commons on Wednesday for saying not a single country has a functional coronavirus contact tracing app.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer refuted the UK leader's statement during Prime Minister's Questions, saying there have been 12 million downloads of a similar app in Germany.

Mr Johnson said his opposite man was "completely wrong" and doubled down on the claim, saying, "there isn't one anywhere in the world so far."

Sir Keir warned the economy could not reopen without a successful track and trace system in place.

He also urged the prime minister not to "make the mistakes he made at the beginning of the pandemic," such as "brushing case, dashing forward and not estimating properly the risks."

Speaking at the despatch box, the Labour leader said: "Up until last week, the government maintained that the app was critical, another of their slides (at the daily briefing).

"But at the weekend (Health Secretary Matt Hancock) downplayed the app, saying it was only ever additional support. So which is it - critical or not?"

Mr Johnson responded: "I wonder whether (Sir Keir) can name a single country in the world that has a functional contact tracing app? Because there isn't one."

The Labour leader replied: "Germany - 12 million downloads. I checked that overnight."

He then said other countries are ahead of the UK, and asked: "When are we going to have a working app?"

Mr Johnson said Sir Keir was "completely wrong", adding: "No country in the world has a working contact tracing app and I've always been clear, we've always been clear, that the app would be the icing on the cake.

"If we can get it to work it'll be a fine thing but there isn't one anywhere in the world so far."

A number of other countries have contact tracing apps up and running, according to Full Fact, such as France, Australia, Poland, Latvia, Denmark, Italy, Iceland, Japan and Singapore, while South Korea has something similar in place.

However, for an app to be fully effective it needs to be downloaded by a large percentage of the population. It also needs to overcome the challenges posed by Bluetooth technology so that it provides reliable information about what contacts have occurred.

It comes after the government's custom-made NHS app was ditched due to technical problems, despite spending £12 million on the project.

The UK is now looking to adopt a decentralised app using technology from Google and Apple, despite having previously ruled out that approach.

Mr Johnson claimed the app would only ever have been “the icing on the cake”, contrasting Mr Hancock's repeated insistence that it would be vital in controlling the virus and preventing a second spike.

The two leaders also clashed over the UK's physical track and trace system, with Sir Keir claiming two-thirds of those with Covid-19 were not being successfully contacted.

“The prime minister risks making the mistakes he made at the beginning of the pandemic, brushing aside challenge, dashing forward, not estimating properly the risks,” he warned.

“If two-thirds of those with Covid-19 are not being contacted that is a big problem because if we don't get track, trace and isolate properly running we can't open the economy, we can't prevent infection spreading.”

He added: “What is the government's strategy for closing the gap between the number of people with Covid-19 and those going into the system, not what happens to those that go into the system?"

The prime minister replied: “The 33,000 cases in the country is, of course, an estimate.

“What NHS test and-trace is doing is contacting the vast majority of those who test positive and their own contacts and getting them to self-isolate, and it is a formidable achievement.”

Mr Johnson also highlighted how the test and trace team had already contacted 87,000 people.

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