NHS COVID-19 app retires as research highlights effect – TechToday

The NHS COVID-19 app has been pulled as technology engineering and consultancy firm Zühlke has announced that the app prevented at least 9,600 deaths (and potentially up to 13,000).

New academic research published in the scientific journal Nature shows that the app, which was developed over a 12-week period, prevented around 1 million cases of COVID (potentially up to 1.4 million) in its first year through its tracking feature alone of contacts

The research covers the year starting on the 24thth September 2020 when the app was launched. During this period there were 95,485 COVID-related deaths and 6.5 million cases in England and Wales. This means that the app reduced the number of deaths by about 9% and the number of cases by about 13% (using the research estimate of 9,600 deaths and 1 million cases averted).

This period covers the second wave and the main and subsequent lockdowns, including: the second lockdown (from 5thNovember 2n.d December 2020, followed by a period of strict restrictions); and England’s third national lockdown (from 6th January 2021, with restrictions gradually lifted from 8th March until the 18thth July 2021).

Previous academic research, published in Nature in early 2021, showed that the app prevented around 600,000 new cases in its first three months alone.

The research team, led by Michelle Kendall, a statistics researcher at the University of Warwick, in their paper concludes: “We estimate that the app’s contact tracing feature alone prevented around 1 million cases (sensitivity analysis 450,000-1,400,000) during its first year, corresponding to 44,000 hospital cases (SA 20,000–60,000) and 9,600 deaths (SA 4600–13,000).»

Wolfgang Emmerich, chief executive of Zühlke UK, said: “Everyone involved is very proud of the number of lives saved, and also the million cases averted given the long-term suffering the disease causes to many who contract it.

“The app was developed in just 12 weeks by a global team of 75 of our best people, including our product and design team, who ensured usability and absorption, architects who know how to design secure systems that can scalar and software engineers who developed and tested effectively to ensure its high quality.

“It quickly became the second most downloaded free app of 2020 in the UK with over 30 million downloads and 20 million active users. Despite the short development period, the app achieved a number of technological innovations to protect privacy while ensuring maximum accuracy and usability.It also achieved the innovation of achieving the ultra-rigorous official MHRA designation as a ‘medical device’.

“This puts it at the forefront of phone apps that go beyond fitness and wellness to also be used for medical-grade diagnostics and monitoring, a trend we expect to see develop strongly for years to come.”

Other notable achievements for the NHS COVID-19 app and the team behind it include:

  • The UK IT Industry Awards recognized the Zühlke team behind the app as Development Team of the Year 2021.
  • It even now appears as one of the most downloaded medical apps in the Apple iStore every month, with an extremely high user rating of 4.6 based on over 415,000 reviews.
  • Initially for England and Wales, the app quickly became interoperable with apps covering Scotland, Northern Ireland, Jersey and Gibraltar.

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At Ikaroa, we have been closely following the development of the NHS COVID-19 app, which has now been retired after the NHS released research that highlighted its limited effectiveness. The app was designed to warn users if they had been in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 and was initially available to individuals in England and Wales.

The app was extremely popular and more than twenty million people downloaded it over the course of its deployment. Despite the app’s strong initial uptake, the research from NHS Digital showed that it had limited impact on controlling the spread of the virus, showing the difficulty of relying on digital tools to succeed in eliminating the virus.

For Ikaroa, this news reaffirms our belief that technology can only go so far. We are always looking for ways to use technology in a creative and innovative way, but at the same moment, understand that technology cannot be a magic wand for solving every problem. In this case, the NHS was unable to rely on a tech solution to control the spread of the virus; it was demonstrated that the combination of physical distancing, regular testing, and contact tracing was the effective solution to slow the virus’ spread.

We are happy to see that the NHS is continuing to experiment with technology solutions and recognise the need to find an effective digital contact tracing solution. Until then, it is important to follow the NHS’ guidelines to remain safe and in control of the virus’ spread.


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