The UK government has finally announced a launch date for its contact tracing app after multiple delays saw its release pushed back by months.
The contact tracing app had initially been set for launch in late May following a trial on the Isle of Wight, but a host of issues – including those relating to the storage of data – saw it repeatedly pushed back.
The app will now be launched on 24 September, and will allow users to check in at businesses by scanning unique QR codes that are being sent out prior to its launch.
“We need to use every tool at our disposal to control the spread of the virus including cutting-edge technology,” said health and social care secretary Matt Hancock.
“The launch of the app later this month across England and Wales is a defining moment and will aid our ability to contain the virus at a critical time.
“QR codes provide an easy and simple way to collect contact details to support the NHS test and trace system.
However, the app has been dogged by criticism at almost every stage, and the launch is no different.
Contact tracing app launch attracts criticism over delays
A key concern for the technology community has been how long it has taken for the government to launch the app, given that similarly complex apps can be launched by private sector organisations in a fraction of the time.
“While it’s encouraging to see the UK’s track and trace app eventually scheduled to launch, the government needs to urgently investigate why it took so long,” said Steve Williamson, general manager EMEA, at Acquia.
“From a technological standpoint, there is no excuse for the delay. And what the delay reveals is a flawed understanding of software development at the heart of Downing Street.”
The app’s launch compares particularly poorly to other countries, many of whom have had their own versions of the contact tracing app live for several months. And Williamson argues that this is due to the government’s decision not to use readily available open source technologies, and instead rebuild essential functions from scratch.
“In a pandemic, speed is critical. When it comes to developing high-quality software at speed, using open source is essential, which other nations were quick to recognise,” he said.
“Countries such as Ireland, Germany, and Italy used open source to build their own applications months ago. Sadly the UK did not follow suit, and wasted millions of pounds and hours of resources trying to build its own version.”
A further concern surrounds that fact that the app will not alleviate businesses from the current requirement of also collecting details of those who attend their premises.
Despite the app’s apparent function, restaurants, bars and shops will still be legally required to collect data about their customers for contact tracing purposes and hold it for 21 days, even if they display a QR code and force all customers to use the app.
This not only undermines the data collection concerns that the app is designed to avoid, but raises questions about what the app is for if businesses also need to maintain a separate contact tracing system.