Bob Seely is MP for the Isle of Wight.
The NHS’s Covid-19 App will soon roll out across Britain. It is a critical part of our nation’s attempt to suppress the virus and reach a “new normal”.
On the Isle of Wight, we’ve been using the App and the Trace and Test programme – aka T&T – with it for more than a fortnight so far. We plan to collectively disseminate our experiences to MPs, local authorities, NHS staff as well as the voluntary sector and business. But before we do, here are some initial thoughts.
Why did the NHSX want to introduce Phase One of the national roll-out here?
The island is geographically separate from the mainland, and we have a diverse population of 140,000 large enough to provide a miniature version of a complex national model.
Why did we want it here? Since being elected, I have campaigned for the Island to pilot national initiatives. We know from our experience that if the Isle of Wight is not first, we tend to be last, and our separation from the mainland adds additional costs.
Some have questioned the appropriateness of the Island as the place to do this? It’s true that we are known for our pastoral beauty and as the sunniest place in Britain, whilst we’ve also been a national centre of painting and poetry inspired by our landscape and sea around us, from Turner and Tennyson to the modern day.
However, we also ‘do’ innovation. Marconi experimented with the world’s first wireless communications here, and the hovercraft was designed and built here. Today, if you are flying and look out of your aircraft window at the elegant, turned-up wing-tips on a Boeing or Airbus, there’s a good chance they are made in East Cowes on the Isle of Wight.
If you fly home over the North Sea, and spy the very large wind turbine blades that dot the surface below, generating an ever-increasing amount of our national power, many will have been made on the River Medina here. We are trialling telemedicine and pioneering the UK’s first medical drone supply service for the NHS. In short, we ‘do’ innovation.
The App sits in the background of your smartphone after downloading and opening. Its battery use is minimal. It reminds you to turn it back on, should you accidentally turn it off, and sends instructions if you come into contact with those who are potentially carrying Covid-19.
It uses Bluetooth technology to plot a relationship with other smartphones. It doesn’t need your location – just the first three digits of your postcode. A full Q&A prepared by the Island is here.
What have the app designers learned on the Isle of Wight?
The NHSX – that’s the digital arm of the NHS that has developed the App – is gaining two types of insight: technical, relating to the app, and practical, relating to real world questions that it generates.
Examples of the technical relate to the appearance of the App, how people interact with it and what models of phones are unable to download it. Other questions apply to its integration with the T&T programme, which is being tweaked and improved.
I believe that the data will soon be available for ‘proximity information’, allowing NHSX to monitor changes in restrictions as they happen; for example, the effect of pub openings. That will be critical for seeing the effects of Government advice as we slowly lift lockdown.
Examples of real-world issues include questions over working practices – for example: (1) prison officers don’t carry personal smartphones, (2) advice to NHS staff to ensure they turn the app off when they have PPE on, and (3), questions about how some elderly folk who have simplified smartphones use it.
The island is giving feedback in four ways: first by simply using the App, second by using the feedback page, thirdly by replying to a mass survey and fourth, by organising official responses in the coming week or two.
Some initial findings
A small number of people have raised privacy issues. The answer is simple: whilst there are significant issues with data privacy in our modern world; this app is not part of that debate. People going onto Facebook to complain about data privacy is a near perfect definition of irony. No app I have ever downloaded has wanted less information than the NHSX’s Covid-19 app. It simply needs the first part of your postcode; that’s all.
What’s the take-up likely to be like? On the island, it has been very good. The total smartphone-owning island adult population who can download the App is at most, probably around 80,000 – this post explains the numbers.
As of last week, out of the 71,191 total app downloads, 52,250 were believed to be unique island downloads, so roughly two thirds of the 80,000 who can download it. Looking at our profiling this week, we now expect this to be over two thirds.
With this number of downloads, we can expect there to be meaningful suppression of the virus, benefiting everyone, – not just those who download the app. The national average for adult smartphone ownership is 79 per cent, and not all of those will be able to download the app.
It’s important to note that our role has not been to pass judgement on the app, but to make sure we use it in large enough numbers, to give feedback on it, and to allow study, by experts, of the app to understand how it interacts with the Trace and Test scheme, prior to the proposed national roll-out.
Within the first weekend of the app’s use, an average of 25 people per day were being tested for Coronavirus after reporting symptoms through the app (or being notified that they have come into contact with someone who had reported symptoms). Such a notification provides clear instructions on what to do next, including testing and self-isolation.
Until our detailed recommendations come out, our key piece of advice based on the island’s experience is this: MPs and councillors should lead their local communities to encourage uptake of the app – and the wider T&T scheme – at the earliest possible opportunity.
I’d start planning now. Perhaps the best way to look at this is the analogy with political campaigns. In general elections, there is the national campaign – the so-called ‘air war’ – and the local campaign, the ‘ground war’. MPs, councillors, NHS Trusts and the myriad of voluntary groups up and down the country will collectively lead the ground campaign. The ground campaign is critical for local engagement and areas that don’t have that won’t do so well driving use.
During the Covid-19 crisis, I’ve held twice-weekly video calls with the approximately 30 leading voluntary, business and public sector organisations on the island to share information and to drive a sense of empowerment in a time when it has been in short supply. It proved to be an invaluable line of communication in briefing our community leaders when we knew the app was coming.
In prepping for the Covid-19 app and the trace and test scheme supporting it, I’d also suggest the following:
- Councils need to be outward-facing and engaged with the community, as most already are. MPs can work with councils to help ensure this. This is not a time for council media teams to be inward-looking or slow.
- Don’t make this political. If opposition parties want to be constructive (whilst reserving their right to ask challenging questions) engage with them. If they want to scaremonger or grandstand, ignore them.
- I personally feel that medical staff need to be advocates for the app in their localities. On the island we ensured that the app programme leader shared the media briefing with both myself and our council leader, Dave Stewart. It helped. I hope that as part of the national rollout, the NHSX/NHS will encourage doctors to front local media campaigns.
- For the app, we produced tailored marketing materials and we engaged our local media ahead of time. There was initial clunkiness in the liaison between national and local communications and the myriad of stakeholders here, but we got there in the end.
- The App and the T&T scheme had glitches, and so will the national programme. We didn’t complain on the island, as we knew that was part of our role. There will still be issues when everyone else gets it nationally. We should not be defensive about this. It’s being rolled out fast and if there are glitches, explain and help resolve them; be positive be part of the solution.
- Personally, I’m proud that this app has been produced by NHSX. It has unique advantages over other systems. If there are changes to it in future, it’s not relevant to downloading the app now. The app is the app, regardless of how it is updated in future. People need to download this one, and not assume there’s another coming along.
- On the island, NHS and council staff downloaded the app 48 hours ahead of the wider population, helping word of mouth. I suspect this may happen nationally, too. This helps to reinforce the idea that we need to continue to protect the NHS and its staff.
- Preferably, MPs and councillors and other local leaders should drive the app take-up and the T&T programme for several weeks after the launch. This takes time, and needs to be factored into diaries. MPs should lead through engagement with the media, ensuring liaison with leading employers so that they get the message out too, as well as the voluntary sector (ranging from Citizens Advice to Age UK to sports and social clubs). Constituents need to receive messages from multiple sources.
- MPs and active councillors will receive a lot of feedback and will need to be able to field questions.
On the island, we’re lucky in many ways. We have close-knit communities and many voluntary groups, clubs and societies through which to disseminate the message.
As well as being ‘techie’ enough to lead the roll-out, we have an old-school (not old-fashioned!) sense of values; we care for both our Island and our nation. This meant that we were ready to engage and support, rather than be dismissive or cynical. We knew the app – and the trace and test programme – would help keep us safe, but also help others.
We’ll hopefully publish details soon but, for now, I am proud that the Isle of Wight, so often the site of artistic and scientific innovation, is doing its job well.
Soon, it will be over to everyone on the other side of the Solent. The message is a simple one: if enough of us download this app, we can, through our joint endeavours and the trace and test programme, suppress the virus.
And for grandparents wanting to see grandkids, for parents wanting to get their kids back to school, or to restart their businesses, or to go to the gym or enjoy, as the Prime Minister said, “the ancient, inalienable right of freeborn people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub”, that should be all the motivation we need.