The ‘pingdemic’ is another failing of the Test and Trace app – so, what went wrong?

The reality is that the NHS Test and Trace app has never been a holy grail panacea for preventing the transmission of coronavirus

Mike Rhodes
Tuesday 20 July 2021 15:07
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Keir Starmer says Tory ministers 'played the system' to avoid self-isolation

We all know about the pandemic’s impact on society and the economy, but what about the “pingdemic”? “Freedom Day” has arrived in England, bringing with it a theoretical end to most restrictions on social contact. Yet as these rules are eased, the “pingdemic” has already started to wreak chaos across the country.

Last week, over 750,000 children were sent home from school after coming into contact with a Covid case and another 500,000 members of the public were “pinged” by the NHS Test and Trace app in the week up to 7 July. Hundreds of businesses have likewise warned of “crippling staff shortages” and temporary business closures due to the sheer number of staff members being forced to isolate after being notified by the app.

Train services have been delayed or cancelled, bank branches have closed their doors and there’s even talk of food shortages after factories were forced to shut early. The rules will change for those who have been double vaccinated in mid-August, but the next month could still see millions required to quarantine for up to 10 days at a time.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that many of these individuals are no more at risk of having contracted Covid than the rest of the population. The distancing used by the Test and Trace app is so extreme that even members of different flats who have never come into contact – and have a wall dividing them – could be “pinged” if their fellow residents test positive. These error margins were understandable, and potentially even tolerable, when Covid cases were averaging around 5,000 a day, but with that figure rising by over 900 per cent, it is likely to cause severe disruption to society.

The reality is that the NHS Test and Trace app has never been a holy grail panacea for preventing the transmission of coronavirus. The system had numerous issues from the outset, and according to recent data had “no clear impact” on transmission levels in 2020. Certainly, some of the initial problems with the app have been corrected, but problems remain.

Accurately calculating distances between people is one challenge. The system uses Google and Apple Bluetooth technologies to calculate the distance between two locations, and this sort of technology has always been an imperfect science for measuring distances.

Essentially, the tech uses estimates based on signal strength that can be significantly impacted by external factors. For instance, if two members of the public were to walk to the park in high winds and rain, a distance of two metres between them might be interpreted as five metres by the app. Conversely, two people three metres apart in a room with little interference, movement or obstacles between them could be interpreted as being only one or two metres apart, resulting in unnecessary “pings”.

In theory, Test and Trace could reduce the distance required for a notification from two metres to one metre, but it could take weeks for these central updates to be downloaded onto phones up and down the country.

With these sorts of potential issues arising, it is no surprise that almost one in three people plan to delete the app or have already banished it from their smartphones. The number of people choosing to ignore the self-isolation alerts is also rising dramatically, due to a lack of faith in the accuracy of the system itself.

Much of the apathy towards Test and Trace is historic and dates back to the app’s initial introduction in May 2020. Despite a criminal spend of £25m, a series of intrinsic errors meant that the app had little impact on the reduction in Covid cases last year.

With the right expertise, developing an app is simple, but as Test and Trace shows, ensuring an app’s success is far more complex than deploying the platform and attracting active users. In fact, only 48 per cent of mobile phones were compatible with the app in 2020, and users that did download Test and Trace were offered little incentive to engage with the platform.

Driving installs and – crucially in the case of Test and Trace – retaining users, isn’t just about building an app, it is about marketing and communicating it properly. Here, the app failed terribly. The in-app communication, onboarding for new users and notification systems are still well below the standard even a junior developer could have produced, resembling the workings of someone trying to create an artificial intelligence bot with a copy of Excel. The app also has no tutorials for usage, and no real instructions on how it should be used.

Sadly, these errors have resulted in the public being largely indifferent to Test and Trace and the instructions delivered by the app. With cases now rising by the minute and demands on the app increasing, one must now ask whether it is even still fit for purpose. Indeed, given the app was so poorly designed and launched to begin with, it is very unlikely to be able to incorporate and interpret complex data such as those who have been fully jabbed and do not need to isolate next month.

With these systemic issues still causing problems today, now is the time to move on to new solutions and forget the very real failings of the Test and Trace system since its inception.

Mike Rhodes is founder of ConsultMyApp, a London-based mobile marketing agency

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