NHS Test and Trace signs £2.5m deal to support Covid-19 app until end of 2022
Deal with Danish firm Netcompany covers ongoing development and support of technology, but future role of contact-tracing system remains unclear
Credit: Hackney Council/Open Government Licence v3.0
The Test and Trace scheme has signed a £2.5m deal for a specialist supplier to provide support and ongoing development work for the NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app until the end of 2022.
But with even those who have tested positive for coronavirus no longer required to isolate – and manual contact-tracing operations now closed – it is unclear what the future holds for an app which has been downloaded over 30 million times, and on which at least £100m of public money has been spent.
The UK Health Security Agency, which is now in charge of running the app, said that it could not comment on the mid- to longer-term plans for the technology, but indicated that – for the time being at least – the government believes that it “continues to have a role in helping us stay safe and reduce the spread of Covid-19”.
The support contract, which runs from 17 February to 31 December, covers the provision of “a delivery partner… to continue to develop, maintain and support the NHS COVID-19 app”. The supplier – Danish-headquartered firm Netcompany – will provide the UKHSA with “a team of [about] 20… including iOS [and] Android developers, DevOps, architects, system testers and engineers”.
The contract notice added that staff supplied by the firm will be expected “to work collaboratively with internal UKHSA teams to deliver a range of mobile app development services and support the existing systems AWS infrastructure”.
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UKHSA, which launched became fully operation in October, replaces and subsumes Public Health England. The new agency also incorporates the NHS Test and Trace programme, and government pandemic advisory unit the Joint Biosecurity Centre.
As of 24 February, people in England are no longer legally required to self-isolate if they test positive for Covid-19 – let alone if they have simply come into contact with someone who later did so.
It is not clear what this means for the future of the contact-tracing app in the longer term and, when asked by PublicTechnology if there were any plans to retire the app – or at least to review its role – UKHSA said it was unable to comment.
The agency did indicate that that the software will continue to alert those who have been in close contact with positive coronavirus cases, and that the technology “continues to have a role in helping us stay safe and reduce the spread of Covid-19”.
Currently, notifications sent to those who have potentially been exposed to the virus are headed in large bold text: “You do not need to self-isolate”.
However, a sub-heading adds: “You could still be at risk of catching and spreading Covid-19.”
Recipients are no longer advised to take daily tests – although a PCR test is recommended for those who start experiencing symptoms.
Those living with someone with the virus are asked to limit contact with them as much as possible, and work from home, if they are able to do so. The wearing of face coverings is also advised in “crowded, enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces”.
An information page on the NHS website says that: “the NHS Test and Trace contact-tracing service has now closed [and] the NHS Covid-19 app is being updated. If the app advises you to self-isolate, you should still take steps to help reduce the chance of passing coronavirus on to others. This advice will be updated on 1 April 2022.”
PublicTechnology also asked UKHSA in what way the app is being updated, and if any changes were planned to the app’s functionality from next month. The agency again indicated that it was unable to comment on future changes to the program, but pointed instead to updates made last month, following the removal of all self-isolation requirements.
Thes included changing the advice on isolation provided by the app and the notifications it sends, as well as closing down the system allowing users to check into venues such as pubs and restaurants. Venue alerts are also now no longer issued.
Since it was launched in September 2020, the app has been downloaded more than 30 million times – including 42,081 who downloaded it during the week ending 2 March, the most recent for which data is available.
A total of 222,766 contact alerts were sent during that seven-day period. This takes the cumulative total of exposure notifications sent to almost 13.5 million. At the height of the app’s usage in summer 2021, weekly alerts issued across England and Wales hit almost 700,000. Having dropped off significantly after almost all restrictions on social contact were lifted in July 2019, alerts rose again around Christmas to exceed 700,000 for the first time in week ending 22 December. Volumes dropped off again somewhat in the new year.
The firm that is contracted to support the running of the app until the end of the 2022, Netcompany, was the Danish government’s main partner in the development of the contact-tracing app used in the country. The digital-transformation firm has also won a number of multimillion-pound UK public-sector contracts with the likes of the Department for Education, NHS Digital, and National Highways.
In April 2021, Netcompany was also awarded by the Department of Health and Social Care a short-term £140,000 deal to deliver a “pilot compliance app” for potential use by those arriving in the UK from countries that were rated ‘Amber’ on the government’s traffic-light risk list.
The deal to support the development and operations of the app is one of several UKHSA has awarded recently in relation to the Test and Trace system.
On 22 February, the agency signed a £355,871 one-year contact with XMA for “citizen message channel personalisation”. The deal will see the IT reseller support the provision of “text message [and] email contact tracing notifications” until February 2023.
Meanwhile, another software reseller, Boxxe, was awarded a one-year deal to provide software that allows citizens to scan the results of coronavirus tests taken at home. The contract came into effect on 1 December and will be worth £2.05m to the York-based firm.
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