As the world is battling against Covid-19, countries around the world are heavily relying on science, data, and technology to win the fight against the virus. With hopes that a vaccine with a 90-95% effectiveness can be rolled out as swiftly as possible in the coming months, this doesn’t rule out applying advances in technology to help limit our exposure to the virus. Multiple countries have launched apps, with England and Wales following suit with their own test and trace app.

After the first iteration of the app was scrapped in June due to the government’s refusal of using Apple and Google’s software, the NHS test and trace app rolled out across England and Wales was launched on 24th September 2020 (separate to Scotland and Northern Ireland where they have introduced their individual apps) in an effort to quickly alert people to self-isolate and limit the spread of Covid-19.

Powered by an Apple and Google-developed system, the app uses Bluetooth to estimate the distance between people via their devices. If someone tests positive for coronavirus, they can tell the app, which will then trigger the system to send out alerts to people they have been in close contact with. These alerts will tell close contacts that they should self-isolate for 14 days.

Other app features include booking a test, checking in to places by scanning a QR code at pubs, restaurants and other venues, and entering test results.

Since its launch, the “world-beating” test and trace app declared by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has come under scrutiny from users and commentators across England and Wales and has even been branded as a “shambles” by technology expert Benedict Evans.

Why has it come under such intense criticism? The app has been plagued by problems that have caused users confusion and dismay who are within their rights to know why the app isn’t functioning adequately, and whether employers have the authority to tell their them to turn the app off in the work environment.

App failed to warn users to self-isolate

The app failed to send users alerts telling them to self-isolate after they came into contact with an infected person. For a month since the launch of the app on 24th September, users who were “at-risk” should have been given an alert, but were not contacted, leaving them to spread the virus unknowingly.

A government source told The Times that a “shockingly low” number of users had been sent warnings since the app was released and that people who owned Android devices were among the worst hit. More than half of UK phone users are Android operated and are also disproportionately used by the less well-off, who are most at risk from contracting the virus.

Technical issues

There have been several technical issues since the app launch. Within the first few days, users found they couldn’t enter their Covid-19 results in the app. That meant people who had been close to those with positive results were not notified to self-isolate. This embarrassing flaw was soon fixed a few days later after the government was made aware.

False exposure alerts have been another concerning issue. Alerts were sent to smartphones claiming that the user may have been exposed to Covid-19. I’ve received these notifications myself repeatedly – when I clicked on the notification, the message disappeared and I wasn’t redirected anywhere. After some research, I found that this was yet another issue the app was facing – the notifications were in fact system checks sent out by Apple and Google. The phantom alerts unsurprisingly caused panic and confusion amongst users, with some users self-isolating out of caution. A software updated has meant that this issue has now been fixed, a month after the test and trace app was launched.

Another instance is how the app can only work on newer devices running more recent operating systems, making the app incompatible with older devices and therefore leaving older generations and the less well-off unable to download the app. As a workaround, the government stated that anyone unable to use the app should continue to use traditional contact tracing services.

False Positive

The Times reported that one in three people told to isolate will be in error. The app’s Bluetooth signal measures proximity to find out if a user has been within two meters of someone who has contracted Covid-19 for 15 minutes. However, this signal can be interfered with by other devices that use Bluetooth and can cause a “false positive”, incorrectly telling users that they have been exposed to the virus.

Employees at institutions being told not to use the app

Some employers are said to be discouraging their employees from using the app when at the workplace.

Teachers got in touch with the BBC anonymously on what they had been advised to do by their school. One teacher, who had tested positive for coronavirus, had said that their school’s business manager told three colleagues who had received alerts on their phone to ignore the self-isolation messages and delete the app if they felt they had not been within 2 meters for at least 15 minutes. The anonymous teacher told the BBC, “Too many schools want to keep staff in, even if it means breaking the law. I am in a school with about 75-80% black African heritage intake, so our demographic is at very high risk.”

Pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) directed thousands of staff to turn off the app while at work as they claim to have “strict Covid protective measures at all our sites”. In defense of their decision, GSK said, “Employees who have chosen to download the app should continue to use it in the normal way when they are not working in these highly controlled Covid-secure environments.” Although GSK claims their rules are in line with government advice, the government says the app should still be switched on in workplaces even if they are deemed to be Covid-secure.

Jaguar Land Rover is the latest company to have also told its employees to switch off the app before arriving at work. In a round-robin email, staff were instructed to pause the app after colleagues had been told to isolate via the app due to “possible false-positive contact”.

The guidance issued by the government says that contact tracing should be turned off at work when people are working behind screens, their phones are stored in lockers, or if healthcare workers are wearing personal protective equipment.

These instances from education settings and companies show that employers are reinterpreting the rules when it comes to the app, either due to a misunderstanding over the rules or to prevent employees from staying out of work. If a staff member does test positive for coronavirus, why wouldn’t an employer want to protect their staff from catching the virus?

Teething problems are bound to happen with an app, and thankfully a lot of these issues have been resolved. Still, it’s understandable that users in England and Wales are frustrated by the overall app performance. With over 20 million downloads, the app has the potential to ensure users self-isolate and are tested swiftly and without hesitation. If further issues crop up, there is a high risk of users losing confidence and trust in the app which can undermine the government’s overall ability to lead effectively in the fight against the virus.

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  • Rebecca Azad works in the creative and charity sector in project and event management, communications and as a content writer. She runs her own sustainable fashion blog. You'll usually find her in a cosy corner of a coffee shop sipping a latte whilst reading a novel or writing a new article for her blog or publication.