Culture Secretary admits 'teething problems' with failing NHS Test and Trace app

27 September 2020, 12:30

By Joe Cook

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has admitted there were "teething problems" with the Government's flagship new coronavirus app as it faces major issues.

Speaking to LBC's Swarbrick on Sunday, Mr Dowden stressed the app is merely “an additional tool in the armoury” but conceded there had been problems with it.

He deflected to Health Secretary Matt Hancock on the cost of the app and said it would be unhelpful to release the number of downloads so soon after launch.

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The app was initially meant to be launched across England in mid-May, as part of Boris Johnson's "world-beating" test and trace system.

Asked about the cost of the Test and Trace app, Mr Dowden told Tom Swarbrick: “Well I think, this is being run by the Health Secretary. I think you would have to ask him the specifics of the numbers, of how much money has been spent, I’m afraid I don’t have that number to hand.

Tom Swarbrick spoke to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden on Swarbrick on Sunday
Tom Swarbrick spoke to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden on Swarbrick on Sunday. Picture: PA

“I’m responsible for digital policy, but he can give you the exact number of the precise amount of money that has been spent.”

Pressed on the tender process for the ‘NHS’ app, which was created by a private company, Mr Dowden was also unable to give any details, saying: “This process has been run through the Department of Health, so I don’t want to give you or your listeners misleading information on this. I think it is best to ask those questions to the Health Secretary.”

Mr Dowden also refused to disclose figures for the number of downloads since the app was launched across England and Wales on Thursday.

“In the next few days we will formally publish the figures,” the Culture Secretary said, “I don’t think it is helpful sort of within the first 24 hours or so. Clearly it is well over a million, but once we have properly verified those numbers we will publish them.”

The app had previously been hailed as an "important step forward" by Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Officials admitted earlier this week that a system flaw meant app users with coronavirus tests processed at an NHS hospital or Public Health England (PHE) lab may not have been able to list their results.

This also includes tests undertaken as part of the Office for National Statistics' national surveillance programme.

But the Department of Health said on Sunday morning that the glitch had been fixed, although people who book a test through a third party still can't upload negative results.

Pressed by Tom on these problems Mr Dowden said: “I was in touch with the Health Secretary this morning, I think we are working rapidly to resolve those challenges and most of the challenges have already been resolved.

“Clearly when you launch something, in the first day or two there will be some issues like that, but we are getting on top of that.

“It is not fair to say that this thing is not useful to anybody. It enables people to know whether they have been proximate to someone who has the disease.

"This is another tool in the armoury. But the core tools in the armoury are the Test and Trace.”

On Saturday, LBC technology correspondent Will Guyatt, who has two decades of covering tech launches, said he couldn't recall an industry event as "messy" as this, and noted an "inherently broken" app was "making a mockery of the system".

But defending the app, the Culture Secretary said: “The important thing in relation to this, is remember, test and trace is the core thing we are doing to control the virus in this respect.

“We have increased, rapidly, the number of tests. We have got 500,000 people who would otherwise be out in the community, potentially spreading the disease, who have isolated as a result of it.”

Even if just 15% per cent of people download the app, “that will start to have an impact,” the minister said.