Friday, July 31, 2020

The UK’s app failure sums up our fatally flawed coronavirus response | John Naughton | Opinion


I’ve just been looking at the coronavirus death toll in various countries as tallied on the Johns Hopkins University Covid-19 tracker. At the time I checked, the UK had 45,407 deaths, Poland had 1,642, Ireland had 1,753, New Zealand had 1,555 and Greece had – wait for it – 197.

“Ah, yes,” you say, “but of course the UK has a much bigger population than most of those countries – 67.9 million compared to (respectively) 37.8 million, 4.9 million, 4.8 million and 10.4 million.” So, as a simple mathematical exercise over breakfast, why not work out the number of deaths per 100,000 for each country? And then try not to choke on your muesli, for these numbers tell an unambiguous story. It is that by the standards of a number of other comparable democratic states, the UK government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has been an unmitigated fiasco, second only, among developed countries, to the unfolding catastrophe in the United States.

Some day, we will have a reckoning for how the Johnson administration screwed up so comprehensively. But that will have to wait, because it is still screwing up. The current focus of interest is why it took it so long to realise that the only way to deal with the threat was lockdown, contact tracing and quarantining, a methodology familiar to Europeans since at least the time of the Black Death. And when the history of this time comes to be written, one interesting case study in official ineptitude will focus on the British search for its very own “world-beating” smartphone contact-tracing app.

The best interim report we have on this quest has been compiled by Rowland Manthorpe of Sky News. Since the Johnson crowd are fond of metaphors from the second world war, one Whitehall source who spoke to Manthorpe provided an illuminating one.

Spool back to early April when the government was in complete disarray. The prime minister was in intensive care, possibly close to death. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, had himself contracted the virus. The government was, Manthorpe’s source recalls, “desperate for good news” and the idea of a smartphone app seemed to be just that. “Thousands of people were dying every day. It was a lot like 1940, the first few months… like the Norway campaign. Go off and do something that’ll be a big success – and it turns out to be a debacle.”

So it’s easy to see why the idea of an app appealed to Hancock and co. And, in principle, mobile phone technology can do some of the things contact tracing requires. The devices always know where they are, Bluetooth networking enables phones to detect other phones in the vicinity and so on.

That was in theory. In practice, legions of devils lurked in the technical detail: Bluetooth’s flakiness, battery life problems and so on, plus privacy concerns and lack of public trust in the technology. And just as the UK team was getting going, Apple and Google, which control the two dominant smartphone operating systems, iOS and Android, got together and came up with a pair of APIs (application programming interfaces) that would enable contact tracing, but would keep all the data on the phones, rather than uploading it to centralised databases. Apps that violated that principle would not be allowed.

At this point, governments had a choice to make: go it alone or accept the companies’ terms. It wasn’t an easy choice, because each approach had strengths and weaknesses. The Apple and Google one was better for privacy, but less informative from an epidemiological perspective. The app that NHSX, the health service’s technological arm, began developing was the other way round. It came down, Manthorpe says, to priorities. “Apple and Google’s app would detect everyone, but it wouldn’t detect the most risky people very well. With the NHSX app, the reverse was true.”

The government seem to have decided to partly stick with the NHSX app, hoping, as one official put it, that Google and Apple will integrate NHSX’s work on Bluetooth into their framework. But the official had to admit they didn’t know if this would happen or even the timeline for a decision. So, concludes Manthorpe, “it is still unclear whether England will ever have a contact-tracing app”.

Meanwhile, the Irish government, like many of its European counterparts, decided to go with the Apple and Google system. Since it launched on 6 July, the Covid Tracker app has been downloaded 1.3m times in eight days– the fastest downloaded app per capita in Europe – and has started picking up cases of infection. It was created by an Irish software company, NearForm, which has made a similar app for Gibraltar, launched last month, and another for Northern Ireland, which is due to be launched within weeks. And just for the avoidance of doubt, Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom, which makes one wonder it it will also be getting the NHSX app, if it ever sees the light of day. British exceptionalism rules OK.

What I’ve been reading

A parting shot
Andrew Sullivan gives an interesting explanation in his final column for New York magazine for leaving and going back to blogging. I look forward to reading him on Substack.

Unmasked crusaders
Alex Danco has written a fascinating essay on his blog on Freud, the pandemic and the psychopathology of refusing to wear a mask.

Don’t ditch the office
Be careful what you wish for when it comes to home-working, warns Ivana Isailović in an intriguing essay on the Law and Political Economy blog.

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