Saturday 27 March 2021 2:00 pm

Vaccine passports: NHS Test & Trace was a travesty of an app, jab certificates must do better

Mike Rhodes is founder of ConsultMyApp

The renewed debate around the adoption of vaccine passports is at the forefront of the agenda for those in the travel sector, and now, publicans are being told they could be able to bar customers who haven’t had a jab or a negative Covid test.

This week, Boris Johnson suggested “it may be up to the landlord” to decide if they impose vaccine requirements. The decision to roll them out domestically will be controversial, but it will likely become an inevitable part of international travel as borders begin to reopen.

The European Union has proposed rolling out its own vaccine pass, a digital green certificate to allow freedom of movement safely, the UK is now also under pressure to find a way to re-open travel.

The key battleground will be the tech behind the passports. As the disastrous, and expensive, NHS Test and Trace app showed, the infrastructure is not easy to build. MPs on the Public Accounts Committee said the app had “no clear impact” on transmission levels.

As government’s drag their heels, private travel companies, including British Airways, are leading the charge and announcing their plans to launch their own vaccine passport app. 

Read more: Matt Hancock: No guarantee that coronavirus laws will end in six months

By providing validation of Covid status, these apps hope to provide a long-term solution to safely re-opening borders across the world and allowing the travel sector to flourish once again. Yet, there remains huge concerns as to whether any of their apps will prove to be up to scratch.

Despite a criminal spend of £43m on the highly anticipate app, Test and Trace has led to just a 0.8-2 per cent reduction in Covid cases. These shocking figures come as a result of a series of intrinsic errors that were overlooked during the crucial app hiring, development and launch stages.  

The Test and Trace disaster should now act as a warning to travel businesses, and the EU government, about the inadequate mishandling of app management. If we are to have a successful digital vaccine passport scheme, we must learn from the mistakes of Test and Trace or we are bound to see yet another pointless gimmick.

With the right expertise, developing an app is simple, but as Test and Trace shows, ensuring an app’s success is far more complex than building the platform and attracting new users.

In fact, it turns out only 48 per cent of mobile phones were compatible with the original app, and users who did download Test and Trace were offered little incentive to engage with the platform. If we are to introduce a vaccine passport app successfully, then we must be willing to recognise these mistakes and turn a corner. By harnessing the best expertise and technology, we can ensure these apps are downloadable and marketable to all passengers – including older generations who have traditionally struggled with app adoption.

Read more: Britain to trial vaccine passports to reopen sports venues

Importantly, vaccine passports will only work if officials look to the real experts in the field of app-development, marketing and user engagement to help implement this crucial step in re-opening the travel sector. Test and Trace has made it painfully clear that the government and its so called “consultants” have failed to understand the very basics of app development, promotion and user engagement, that would have otherwise ensured the system was running to an optimal level. 

From the in-app communication to the onboarding of new users and the app notification systems, Test and Trace’s features are well below the standard even a junior developer could have produced, resembling the workings of someone trying to create an artificial intelligence bot with a copy of Excel.

The government’s poor recruitment of talent for Test and Trace has resulted in users being inaccurately notified of Covid-exposure, told to isolate for an additional amount of time, or failing to notify users at all – all of which has led to significant uninstall numbers and a lost opportunity for society to exit this mess sooner.

With this in mind, accuracy and reliability will be imperative in ensuring the successful use of vaccine passport apps, allowing those using it to be reassured of its validity and effectivity. In addition, those behind the vaccine passport apps must be experienced and aware that in order to drive installs and retain these users, you must also focus on pre and post-acquisition marketing as well as delivering a valuable & nurturing user experience. 

Achieving installs on only 40 per cent of potential devices is, quite simply, a travesty.

Vaccine passport apps will require far higher user retention & engagement and a critical mass well beyond the levels even of a reasonable social network. Their objective should now be to ensure that the app reaches at least 80 per cent of our smartphone population. If those creating the apps stick to the status quo of Test and Trace, it will only amount to yet another disastrous failure – with society paying the ultimate price.   

If Test and Trace has offered anything, it is the opportunity to examine where it went wrong and what specifically led to its failure, so that these mistakes are never repeated. It is now up to the EU, travel businesses and rest of the world to use Test and Trace as a learning curve, to avoid their mistakes and guarantee that their vaccine passport apps are widely downloaded and engaged with. Should they continue to repeat the same mistakes as those of Test and Trace, we are, unfortunately, likely to see another wave of redundancies and incur more restrictions on travel.  

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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