Covid tracker apps being scaled down worldwide

The Irish app, first introduced to great fanfare in July of 2020, last registered an upload of temporary exposure keys (TEKs) on March 24, meaning that the app can no longer perform its function.

In turning off the app’s exposure update, Ireland joins numerous other countries globally who have done likewise in recent months.

In Europe, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Poland and Slovenia have all ended TEK updates in the past two months. The Czech Republic ceased to do so last December.

The data, compiled by the school of computer science at Trinity College Dublin, does show that the majority of countries are still operating their individual apps, however, including a majority of European countries.

Northern Ireland’s app still functions, as do the individual applications implemented in Scotland, England and Wales.

The HSE had not responded to a request for comment as to whether or not the app had been officially wound down at the time of publication.

Ireland’s app, and the majority of those used worldwide, worked by utilising Bluetooth ‘handshakes’ among users, by which contact tracing could be performed once an individual tested positive for the virus and both informed the HSE of that fact and uploaded their various contacts.

However, in recent times, particularly in the context of the emergence of the Omicron variant of Covid and the general relaxation of pandemic restrictions, the app’s efficacy has been called into question.

Last October, it emerged that just 6% of positive cases were being notified to the Irish app, a shortfall which had been growing exponentially over the previous 12 months.

“The app still functions, in terms of hosting the electronic covid cert, and the servers haven’t been turned off, but no keys are being updated so its core function isn’t happening,” Trinity’s Dr Stephen Farrell said.

“There hasn’t been any big announcement from the HSE that I’ve seen.”

Dr Farrell added that Denmark’s health service had stated that they would turn off their own app at the end of March.

“There will be an ongoing debate as to whether or not the apps have been effective or not, but given people have been turning off other pandemic-related constraints, then retiring the apps would appear to be an obvious thing to do,” Dr Farrell said, adding that it “was always going to happen” that the apps would disappear more quietly than they arrived.

The HSE had spent more than €1.2 million on the app, split between €850,000 production costs and a further €400,000 in maintenance fees, in its first year of operation.

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