The Health Foundation says that there must be greater transparency around the development of the NHS contact tracing app. The app, which is due to be launched on 24 September, is intended to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. However, the public are yet to see the results of pilots of the app which took place in August among residents of the Isle of Wight and Newham in London.
The effectiveness of the app will be dependent on a majority of the public downloading it and changing their behaviour based on its advice, but the Health Foundation says that showing evidence that it is effective and ready for mass roll-out is key to building public confidence.
As well as confirming the overall effectiveness of the app, the Health Foundation says the government needs to demonstrate the technology won’t exacerbate existing health inequalities, leaving some people at greater risk of COVID-19 than others. The Foundation has previously warned of the potential negative impact of a ‘digital divide’ as those without access to the app will not receive the same level of benefit in terms of up-to-date information about their risk of infection from contact with others. The independent charity says this must be considered against a backdrop of growing inequality which has left certain groups at significantly increased risk from COVID-19.
Newham, one of the two pilot sites, is one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the country, has a high population density and significant areas of deprivation. Piloting the app in Newham was an opportunity to understand how it works among different populations. But without publication of any findings from the pilot study, we do not know whether these major concerns have been addressed.
Previously unreleased polling by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Health Foundation – conducted between 17 and 29 July among British adults, prior to the announcement that a redesigned smartphone app would be piloted and rolled out – reinforces concerns of a potential digital divide along the lines of ethnicity, occupation, educational level and age. For example, participants from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background, women, the youngest and oldest age groups, routine and skilled manual workers, and the unemployed, are found to have lower awareness of the government plans to use a smartphone contact tracing app*.
The polling also shows that a higher proportion of adults in professional, administrative and management roles say they are likely to download the app, use the app to report symptoms of Coronavirus or self-isolate for 14 days if the app suggests you have been in close contact with a person who has COVID-19. Those with GCSE or equivalent qualifications or with no formal qualifications are less likely to say they would download the app. Younger people (18–24) are more likely to say they would download the app, use the app or self-isolate based on its advice, while the oldest age groups (65+) are the least likely to do so.**
The Health Foundation notes that the contact tracing app will only be effective if it is successfully embedded as part of a wider test and trace system, which also faces considerable challenges. It is also vital that those who do not have access to the app are protected as a priority by the wider test and trace system, and that a more comprehensive strategy to tackle health inequalities is put in place.
Josh Keith, a Senior Fellow at the Health Foundation, said:
'With a virus that is transmitted as quickly as COVID-19, the automated contact tracing that the app promises could prove invaluable in reducing its spread. Also, the additional features of the app, such as booking a test, reporting symptoms or checking the risk level in postcode district could provide a helpful single source of COVID-19 related advice and support.
'However, for any major, nation-wide public health intervention it is important the government publishes evidence that it is effective and ready for mass roll-out in advance of its launch. This is key for building confidence in the app as people will want to know that it will benefit them and their communities. But any data on the pilots that took place in August have been notably absent, leaving major questions over the app’s effectiveness unanswered.'
Notes to editors
A Health Foundation publication launched today examines the role of the wider NHS Test and Trace Programme in England, key stages in its development, and how the system may evolve or act to mitigate the challenges it faces.
About the survey
The survey was conducted by telephone on the Ipsos MORI CATI Omnibus survey, a weekly telephone omnibus survey of a representative sample of people aged 18 and over in Great Britain. Fieldwork took place between 17 and 29 July 2020. A total of 2,246 adults were interviewed. For the main sample, quotas were set on age, gender, Government Office Region and working status. In addition to the people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds interviewed as part of the main sample, a booster survey was conducted. The sample includes a total of 423 interviews conducted with black and minority ethnic participants.
For the overall findings, data has been weighted to the known population proportions for age within gender, Government Office Region and working status and social grade. For the black and minority ethnic background findings, data has been weighted to the known population proportions for age, gender, Government Office Region, working status and social grade.
Notes on the survey results
*Polling results on public awareness of the contact tracing app.
The following groups are less likely to say they know 'a great deal' or 'a fair amount' about the government plans to use a smart phone app to identify people who have reported Coronavirus symptoms and alert others who have been near them – known as 'contact tracing':
**Polling results on intention by adults to download the app, use the app to report symptoms of Coronavirus or self-isolate for 14 days if the app suggests you have been in close contact with a person who has Coronavirus.