In a humiliating reversal of policy, the government announced on Thursday that it is abandoning the contact-tracing app which it had said was vital to an effective “test and trace” system.
Instead, it is now seeking to use Apple and Google technology. The U-turn follows months of cover-ups.
The original app—designed by NHSX, the health service’s innovation arm—was criticised by privacy campaigners. It was also beset with technical problems and delays.
NHSX will now work to combine its app with the Apple and Google system, aiming to release a new product in the autumn—or winter.
But officials involved in the test and trace programme emphasised that even by the autumn, the app might not be good enough to be used for contact-tracing. Instead, it will be used just for users to report coronavirus symptoms and order a test.
Contact-tracing will predominantly be done by 27,000 call handlers, who interview new virus sufferers and question then about who they have been close to.
But this system, handed to outsourcer Serco, is also failing. Three weeks since it began, some contact tracers have failed to reach a single person.
Some call handlers, scattered in offices and homes far from the people they speak with, have mistakenly tried to send patients in England to testing sites in Northern Ireland.
And a government minister threatened on a conference call to stop coordinating with local leaders on the virus-tracking system if they spoke publicly about its failings.
The New York Times has learned that the contract, awarded in a secretive procurement process, was worth £108 million.
In addition Private Eye magazine says that but most of the scheme’s “army of testers” are in fact employed not by Serco but a “network of subcontractors”—creating confusion around how key staff are recruited, managed and able to deal with more complex problems.
Some staff who contacted Private Eye say their direct employers are agencies, including Capita, the temping giant Adecco, call centre corporation TTEC and many smaller temping firms.
But Serco won’t worry—it’s celebrating bumper profits.
Its shares rose by nearly a fifth on Wednesday after the company announced revenues for the first half of 2020 were up by 23 percent.
The forecasts, withdrawn in April amid the virus crisis, are now for £3.7 billion of revenues this year, against previous forecasts of £3.4 billion to £3.5 billion.
Profits are expected to be £145 million.
Serco had earlier won a £46 million contract from the Department for Work and Pensions to provide emergency contact centre services for vulnerable people who are self-isolating.
Allyson Pollock, a professor of public health at Newcastle University, said, “The government has dismantled, fragmented and eviscerated so much of its health service over the last 20 years that it was much more difficult to get a coordinated system.”
“They’re basically trying to build a centralized, parallel, privatised system,” she added.
As a result, she said, “We’ve had far more deaths than we should have. And lockdown has had to go on much longer than in other countries because we’ve let the virus rip for so long.”
The chaos doesn’t just funnel money to corporations, it also means the exit from lockdown will be wholly unsafe and cost even more lives.