“No country currently has a functioning track and trace app” – Boris Johnson, House of Commons. 23 June.


Numerous Asian countries have been using successful track and trace apps, including China, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. In Europe, Germany introduced its own new track and trace app at the start of June.


In mid-March, the Conservative Government ditched its plan to introduce a “track and trace” system to contain the spread of Covid-19. Now the Government has done another U-turn and has revived track and trace, so it can ease the lockdown. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock originally claimed the new app service would go live in mid-May. As of late June, it has still to do so. Now the PM says that other countries have also failed to introduce a working app. This is not true.

WATCH: Boris Johnson's brazen lie to MPs about coronavirus apps

There are many examples of successful mobile phone apps that allow those carrying the device to be monitored in real time, to have their movements tracked, to be granted or denied access to specific locations via the app’s barcode, and to provide the authorities with data to cross-check proximity to known COVID-19 carriers. Such apps (see below) are based on existing, proven platforms and mobile phone networks in countries such as China, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. On this definition, the PM is wrong.

There are differences in how these apps work and how data is recorded. Possibly the PM is referring to the use of Bluetooth enabled apps. A number of European countries have initiated crash programmes to develop such apps and there have been associated delays, usually down to persuading sufficient users voluntarily to download the programmes. However, Germany gave the green light to its Bluetooth app at the start of June.


China has by far the biggest app-enabled track and trace programme. Unlike democratic countries, the Chinese regime is able to use phone apps to garner and centralise data on individuals without worrying about issues of privacy. Individual citizens are required to register for a bar code using the existing WeChat messaging app, or through the AliPay mobile wallet. Use of existing platforms has made track and trace easier to implement.

Users are prompted to enter personal information, including their ID number, phone number, address, place of work and (if travelling) the address of where they are staying locally. They also tick a series of health-related questions, e.g. have you been in close contact with a carrier? Based on personal responses, the app generates a colour code. This is required upon entry to defined regions, buildings, workplaces, and transit systems. An individual with ‘green’ health status – the lowest risk category – has the least amount of restrictions in their movement, and so on.


Cases of Covid-19 in South Korea peaked in February, making the country one of the first to bring the pandemic under control. This success was largely down to an effective track and trace app allied to extensive, early testing. Novel features include tracking all foreign visitors and having people who violate quarantine wear a special, location-tracking bracelet. However, the South Korean use of tracking technology goes beyond what might be acceptable in Europe. South Korean health authorities use face recognition CCTV and credit card transaction data to keep tabs on infected patients braking lockdown.


The Singapore app was developed by the city state itself and put into use on March 20. Currently, contact tracing relies on the fallible memory of interviewees. The Singapore phone app eliminates this fallibility. Users exchange Bluetooth signals between phones that are in close proximity – two metres or less. This data is recorded on the phone but is not disclosed to the authorities. Only when someone is infected is their phone information accessed and phone numbers recorded as having been in dangerous proximity are sent a message to come in and be tested. This avoids privacy issues. The app is seen as an addition to tracing and testing.

Note: Bluetooth technology is the basis of the proposed UK app. If the PM was suggesting such Bluetooth tracing technology has yet to be fully implemented, then the Singapore example proves he is in error. Indeed, some UK medical sources argued for the Singapore track and trace technology to be bought off the shelf rather than Britain reinvent the wheel.


Germany’s success in containing Covid-19 was largely due to early and massive testing, in order to isolate infected people. This testing effort was in part facilitated by Germany’s extensive pharmaceutical industry and by a huge voluntary effort to trace potential contacts. However, Germany did not introduce an app to facilitate tracking until June. The new "Corona-Warn-App" does not log the whereabouts of individuals, meaning authorities cannot spy on users. It recognizes only which other app users currently in the vicinity. As in Singapore, the system works via Bluetooth, a wireless standard that enables devices to exchange data at close range.

The German aim with its new app is to identify the location of potential new clusters of Covid-19, leading to local lockdowns. The idea is to prevent a second wave of the disease. Possibly this is the strategy being followed by the UK, but so far Britain is running far behind Germany in bringing its app into use.

Note: The weakness in this strategy is that a very large number of people have to download the app to be able to identify such clusters, possible over 60% of phone users. The UK pilot test with its track and trace app on the Isle of Wight seems to have run into problems because of the low take-up. Possibly, the PM was referring to these difficulties. However, the Germany Government believes that public pressure and consistency of approach will boost app user numbers eventually.


In mid-April, Norway became one of the first Western countries to roll-out a contact-tracing app. The Norwegian approach was to gather both Bluetooth and GPS location data, then store contact matches on a centralised computer server. The Norwegian health authority was advised by Oxford University’s Big Data Institute, which also advised the NHS to adopt a similar ‘centralised” approach.

However, on June 11, the Norwegian authorities were forced to suspend loading data to their Covid-19 track and trace app following a ruling by the national data privacy watchdog. The Norwegian Data Protection Authority argued that holding information on individuals, including GPS location data, for up to six months was “a disproportionate threat to user privacy”. The ban is being challenged but the data has been deleted meantime. It was also revealed that only 10% of the Norwegian population had downloaded the app.


The UK track and trace project is well behind schedule, involves serious privacy issues and is trying to replicate technology other nations have already developed. Worse, it lacks the allied testing regime that can use the data acquired. No wonder Boris Johnson is trying to obfuscate matters by claiming erroneously that no-one else has been able to introduce a working track and trace app.


The National:

Another Boris invention