Another Great British World Beating Fiasco
David Hencke reports on how nearly £10 million has been wasted on the Government’s NHSX tracing app, which it has now ditched to follow one being used by other countries for some time
Desperate NHSX officials spent another £1.3 million to try to save Britain’s doomed “world beating” COVID-19 app by signing and extending contracts with IT companies to iron out bugs, glitches and security issues, according to the latest information on the Government’s contract finder site.
Spending on the entire COVID-19 ‘Test and Trace’ programme is now approaching £120 million – including contracts given to Serco and other organisations to create an army of people to trace everybody who has been in close contact with those who have tested positive for the Coronavirus.
It emerged yesterday that the Government is now ditching its tracing app and shifting to a model based on technology provided by Apple and Google, which has been promoted as being more focused on users’ privacy.
But, the desperation of officials to make the Government’s own app work is shown in a contract with Eggplant, a global software company based in London and Colorado, which has been given a £213,000 contract without competitive tender. The contract had to be rushed through as there were “genuine reasons for extreme urgency as there is a significant public health risk requiring immediate action as a result of COVID-19”.
The company – which specialises in using artificial intelligence to iron out bugs and glitches – was authorised to do a “managed load test” to see if the app worked properly, provided accurate information and could work with third parties. It officially runs out on 31 July but can be renewed.
Three other IT companies were awarded contracts with Cloudflare, Helecloud and NCC Security Services in Manchester to test the app, mainly for security issues.
The value of the contract with Zuhlke Engineering in Switzerland to run the NHS app crept up from £3.9 million to £4.725 million.
This brings the cost of the failed app just short of £10 million.
This rush of contracts during the final weeks before announcing that the NHSX app will be dropped in favour of the Google and Apple model suggests ministers were desperate to stick to the Government’s version. The Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has already begun rewriting history, having yesterday described the Government’s app as “the cherry on the top of the cake” rather than being central to the ‘Test and Trace’ system.
At the beginning of the month, Boris Johnson promised a “world beating” app would be in place on 1 June. This was cited as being essential for the Government to start easing lockdown, with people returning to work and children going back to school.
At the same time, BBC News interviewed a ‘Test and Trace’ finder anonymously who said he had only been given a day’s training and had no work to do.
Matthew Gould, the chief executive of NHSX, poured cold water on using the Google and Apple app when he gave evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee at the end of April.
“The Apple and Google approach is itself evolving, and it is not there yet,” he told MPs. “They have said that they will do a two-stage process, first to try to make an API [application programming interface] available, allowing those developing contact tracing apps to do so more effectively. The second stage is to develop their own contact tracing product, but we are some way from that second stage, so waiting for them would slow us down considerably.”
Matt Hancock described the NHSX app as “groundbreaking technology”. But its Isle of Wight trial was not a success despite 60% of the people living there downloading it – because it would not work on iPhones.
Meanwhile, the £108 million spent on contracts with Serco and others has not been entirely effective – failing to trace a quarter of contacts and relying on people’s memory, rather than technology, to determine who they could have had close contact with.
It is unclear what will happen to the contract with Zuhkle to run the app from 15 June. The agreement allows it to be terminated but neither Zuhkle nor NHSX would comment.
The contracts with Faculty – run by Marc Warner, who worked with the Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings on a previous Conservative Party election project – and Palantir, including developing a national database for the X-rays of COVID-19 patients, suggest that work will continue with these companies.