Someday we’ll have an account for how the Johnson administration messed up so comprehensively. But that will have to wait, because he is always making a mistake. Current interest is why it took so long to realize that the only way to deal with the threat was through lockdown, contact tracing and quarantine, a methodology familiar to Europeans for at least the time of the black plague. And when the history of that era comes to be written, an interesting case study in official ineptitude will focus on the UK’s search for its own ‘beating the world’ smartphone contact finder app.
The best interim report we have on this quest was written by Rowland Manthorpe of Sky News. Since Johnson’s crowd loves WWII metaphors, a source in Whitehall who spoke to Manthorpe provided some insight.
Come back to the beginning of April, when the government was in disarray. The Prime Minister was in intensive care, possibly on the verge of death. Health Secretary Matt Hancock had contracted the virus himself. The government was, the Manthorpe 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 bit like 1940, the first few months… like the Norwegian countryside. Go do something that will be a big hit – and it turns out to be a debacle.
So it’s easy to understand why the idea of an app appealed to Hancock and co. And, in principle, mobile phone technology can do some of the things that contact tracing requires. Devices always know where they are, the Bluetooth network allows phones to find other phones nearby, etc.
It was in theory. In practice, legions of demons lurked in the technical details: the fragility of Bluetooth, battery life issues, and more, as well as privacy concerns and the public’s lack of trust in the technology. And just as the UK team was getting underway, Apple and Google, which control the two dominant smartphone operating systems, iOS and Android, came together and came up with a pair of APIs (programming interfaces of ‘application) that would allow contact tracing, but would. keep all data on the phones, rather than uploading it to centralized databases. Applications that violate this principle would not be allowed.
At this point, governments had a choice to make: go it alone or agree to corporate terms. It was not an easy choice, as each approach had strengths and weaknesses. Apple’s and Google’s was better for privacy, but less epidemiologically informative. The app that NHSX, the tech arm of the health service, began to develop was the reverse. It boiled down, Manthorpe said, to priorities. “Apple and Google’s app detects everyone, but it doesn’t detect the most risky people very well. With the NHSX app, the reverse was true. ”
The government appears to have decided to stick with the NHSX app in part, hoping, as one official said, that Google and Apple will incorporate NHSX’s work on Bluetooth into their framework. But the official had to admit he wasn’t sure if that would happen or even the timeline for a decision. Thus, concludes Manthorpe, “we still do not know if England will ever have a contact tracing application”.
Meanwhile, the Irish government, like many of its European counterparts, has decided to go for the Apple and Google system. Since its launch on July 6, the Covid Tracker app has been downloaded 1.3 million times in eight days – the most downloaded app per capita in Europe – and has started to detect cases of infection. It was created by an Irish software company, NearForm, which has created a similar app for Gibraltar, which launched last month, and another for Northern Ireland, which is expected to launch in a few weeks. And just for the avoidance of doubt, Northern Ireland is still part of the UK, which suggests it will get the NHSX app as well, should it ever see the light of day. British exceptionalism reigns over OK.
What i read
A tee shot
Andrew Sullivan gives an interesting explanation in his latest column for New York magazine to leave and return to the blog. Can’t wait to read it on Substack.
Alex Danco wrote a fascinating essay on his blog about Freud, the pandemic, and the psychopathology of mask refusal.
Don’t give up the office
Be careful what you want when it comes to working from home, warns Ivana Isailović in an intriguing essay on the Law and Political Economy blog.
• This article was amended on July 25, 2020 to remove a reference to New Zealand because a figure for cases (1,555) was given instead of the number of deaths (22).