“Yes of course it’s perfectly true that it would be great to have an app, but no country currently has a functioning track and trace app.”
Boris Johnson, 23 June 2020
In Parliament, Boris Johnson said no country currently has “a functioning track and trace app” for countering Covid-19.
How accurate this claim is depends on what you understand by “functioning”. Multiple countries have launched contact tracing apps (which use the phone’s built-in technology to detect when the user has been in close contact with another app user who tests positive for Covid-19), and those apps have been downloaded by millions of people.
Although these apps could certainly be described as “functioning”, it is important to note that track and trace apps are not expected to be particularly effective unless they are downloaded by a large percentage of the population. Many countries that have launched apps have seen problems with the level of uptake.
There are also concerns that the underlying Bluetooth technology that most these apps rely on may not be able to reliably provide useful information about what contacts have occurred.
In France, a mobile track and trace app ‘StopCovid France’ was launched on 2 June. On 16 June, Reuters reported that 1.5 million people had downloaded it, approximately 2% of the French population. The French app uploads contact data to government-run centralised servers.
Germany’s Corona-Warn-App was launched on 16 June, and has so far been downloaded 12.2 million times. Reuters reported that it uses existing Apple and Google technology and measures close contacts using Bluetooth short-range radio. Contacts are logged securely on devices rather than a centralised server.
Bluetooth technology is also currently being used in track and trace apps by countries including Australia, Poland, Latvia, Denmark, Japan and Italy.
Back in March, Singapore launched a track and trace app based on Bluetooth technology called Trace Together. Earlier this month, Forbes reported that Singapore was planning on rolling out wearable tracking devices that will not rely on smartphone ownership, after just 20% of the population downloaded the original app.
Iceland’s track and trace app, which uses GPS tracking instead of Bluetooth, was launched in April, and in May was reported to have been downloaded by 38% of the population.
Other countries have launched apps with different objectives in combating Covid-19, such as symptom monitoring. For example, South Korea requires new arrivals in the country to download an app through which they must report any symptoms while in mandatory quarantine. (South Korea’s broader contact tracing effort does not use a Bluetooth contact-identification app, instead using location data from phone networks among a range of personal information to reconstruct the movements of confirmed cases.)
So while it’s certainly true that some countries have launched track and trace apps, it may be too early to know whether these apps are having the intended effect in helping to contain the spread of the pandemic.