The NHS’s contact tracing app could be diminished to just a “companion” to manual tracking, amid concerns the Apple and Google model the UK is adopting misses the vast majority of contacts in enclosed spaces.
Government sources told The Telegraph the health service’s app could initially be released without the bluetooth contact-tracing feature if NHS developers struggle to get the technology working.
This version could see the app merely directing people to where they can get a test and giving NHS guidance on Covid symptoms.
The development comes as the Government this week ditched efforts to build its own contact tracing app and decided to switch over to the model created by Apple and Google.
However, a study released by Trinity College Dublin found the tech giants’ system could be missing up to 95 per cent of contacts in enclosed spaces such as buses and trains.
Researchers found that Google and Apple’s notification software, which uses low-energy Bluetooth signals, was failing to log other nearby phones when near metal surfaces.
Contact tracing apps rely on using smartphones’ bluetooth connections to log when people come into a proximity close enough to spread the virus. The idea is that users can then be alerted when someone they have had contact with reports Covid-19 symptoms or tests positive.
Trinity College researchers, who conducted tests with volunteers on a London-style double decker bus, warned the failings could lead to soaring numbers of missed matches between people who might have coronavirus.
Doug Leith, a professor at Trinity, said: “We found that the radio environment inside a bus is highly complicated, presumably due to all the metal which reflects the radio waves.
“As a result, the signal strength can be higher between phones that are far apart than phones close together, making reliable proximity detection based on signal strength hard or perhaps even impossible.”
The findings come after Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced on Thursday the Government was ditching the contact tracing app it has been building since March and moving over to the Apple and Google version, after NHS developers found their model only worked on around 4 percent of iPhones.
However, Mr Hancock warned the tech giants’ version was not accurate enough at measuring how far apart people were and he wanted the NHS to develop a hybrid of the two apps that resolved the issue.
“Measuring distance is mission critical to any contact tracing app,” he added.
The Government has said the app, which was initially meant to go live in mid May, may now not be released until winter.
Whitehall sources said today they were unsure what the final version would look like or if they would be able to make the technology work effectively.
A Government source said: “Neither our own app or the Google/Apple one worked well enough and the challenge now is to develop a hybrid that has the best of both worlds.
“But we’re not going to say what we expect the end product to look like, because we just don’t know what’s possible at the moment. That’s why we’ve set up this new collaboration with Google and Apple to find out what we might and might not be able to achieve. It’s too early to say where we will end up.”
The Telegraph understands that if the technical issues cannot be resolved, the app could then be launched as a ‘companion app’ to the army of 25,000 human contact tracers, with the bluetooth contact-tracing feature added at a later date.
Meanwhile, papers released by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) yesterday (FRI) show that wider test, trace and isolate scheme would only prevent between 5 and 15 percent of new infections.
A report on the scheme by the Royal Society’s Delve group (Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics) concluded that it would only by useful alongside a ‘wider package of public health interventions,’ including social distancing
The experts also warned that success was based on public compliance with the scheme and said incentives would probably be needed to encourage people to isolate and disclose their contacts.
Sage meeting minutes from May 19th also show scientists were concerned that test and trace alone would not be able to stop the reproduction ‘R’ number from rising above 1.
Figures published by the Government show that it had awarded contracts totaling more than £11.2 million to private companies to develop the junked version of the app.