back to article Germany prepares to launch COVID-19 contact-tracing app 'this week' while UK version stuck in development hell

Germany will launch its coronavirus track-and-trace app later this week, Federal health minister Jens Spahn has confirmed. In an interview with ARD Television, Spahn said the contact-tracing app will launch "this week" although failed to give a specific day. According to Reuters, local media expects a Tuesday launch. Contact …

  1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    Contact tracing is regarded as a vital tool to limit the spread of COVID-19…

    And thus far none of the proposed technical solutions have been particularly good at this. Germany currently has reported new infection rates of 300 - 400, concentrated in a few places in a country of 80 million. Given this background, it is really, really difficult to see how this app, which will need a penetration rate of > 60 % to be statistically useful will really help. And it seems like the people in Singapore have reached a similar conclusion.

    More draconian, but perhaps potentially more useful, are the registration lists that restaurants, hairdressers, et al. are keeping. This could be automated and I think we'll probably see more "location restricted" services: you register automatically when you enter and leave somewhere. In which case the German parliament had better get on with a law that means companies cannot require such services. But I think we're also likely to see more attempts at early diagnosis of people with no or mild symptons such as the thermometer "guns" that the Chineese are using. We're also going to get data of the spread in nurseries and schools as they return to normal for a couple of weeks before the summer holidays. This will help improve the modelling, which will in turn, make it easier to make suggestions for targetted restrictions and recommended behaviour and the current blanket bans seem, not just to me, to be undermining society by placing everyone under suspicion.

    1. gnasher729 Silver badge

      The number "60%" has been spread around like a virus, but it's not true. _Any_ amount of uptake will help. The more the better obviously, but any uptake helps.

      Now there are two problems: In UK, people who rightfully are wondering why their government has to record everything and store it for twenty years, protected by the most unprotective woman who the could possible find for the job. And everywhere, the paranoid who don't trust an Apple with an API produced by Apple and Google (when it is common sense that if these two companies wanted any information about you, they would have it. If you don't trust your phone maker then you might as well move to some remote island).

      1. Teiwaz Silver badge

        it is common sense that if these two companies wanted any information about you, they would have it.

        I wonder how...I've never owned or operated anything apple, and try to keep Google usage at a minimum.

        I don't trust any current 'smart' phone - yet have not moved to any remote islands.

        1. gnasher729 Silver badge

          Taiwaz, as I said, go to a remote island.

          1. Teiwaz Silver badge

            Taiwaz, as I said, go to a remote island.

            I grew up in Northern Ireland.

            That was remote enough from civilisation thank you.

      2. Steve Crook

        Which is why...

        > _Any_ amount of uptake will help. The more the better obviously, but any uptake helps.

        Clearly that's not true.

        Which is why Singapore, where they have the control, are looking at deploying compulsory wristbands that aren't subject to the constraints of other devices.

      3. DavCrav Silver badge

        "The number "60%" has been spread around like a virus, but it's not true. _Any_ amount of uptake will help. The more the better obviously, but any uptake helps."

        Quick introduction to percolation theory.

        Imagine an infinite square grid, with a single person on each intersection of the grid. They know each of the four neighbours. They have the app with probability p, between 0 and 1. For a simplistic version of this, we will assume that the app works perfectly to stop spread, and that all people infect their four neighbours. Thus if we place a few bits of virus down, we will expect to get bubbles of infection appear, and will be stopped if they are surrounded by people with the app.

        The question is, is there an infinite lump of infected people, all connected? Notice that if I let finitely many people download the app, this does not change whether there is an infinite lump of infected people or not! Thus a theorem known as Kolmogorov's Zero-One law comes in. It says that for p=0 (no app) the answer is obviously yes, and for p=1 (everybody has the app) the answer is obviously no.

        Therefore, and here is the weird thing, there exists some probability, the critical probability, say p_c, such that if p<p_c then the infection spreads uncontrollably through much of the population, and if p>p_c then it always collapses. For the model I gave, the percolation threshold is about 0.592746.

        This is the infinite case, but it works pretty well for the finite case as well, as 70 million is essentially infinite for this type of model.

        What the critical threshold is depends on the model used, but there is a critical threshold for blocking percolation through a network, below which it is essentially useless, and above which it is great.

        1. Danny Boyd Bronze badge

          Actually, percolation collapses if the individual "cells" *resist* percolation with probability p > p_c. That's why the epidemiologists talk about "herd immunity", achieved at about 60% level of immune population. But tracking app doesn't make you immune, so this model is not applicable. The applicable model would involve characteristic times of infection transfer, probability of transfer detection, and characteristic times of reaction ("catch all possibly infected and isolate them"). Spread of contact tracking app will only give you probability of transfer detection.

          1. DavCrav Silver badge

            "Actually, percolation collapses if the individual "cells" *resist* percolation with probability p > p_c."

            I said:

            "For a simplistic version of this, we will assume that the app works perfectly to stop spread, and that all people infect their four neighbours."

            I was giving that as an explanation as to why there are counterintuitive sharp boundaries in these sorts of problems. The same applies with assuring randomness in shuffling, and other mixing phenomena.

            I think the model is not applicable because it assumes that all humans are standing on a square grid, rather than the app doesn't work very well.

    2. AMBxx Silver badge

      With the rate the infection rates are dropping, the chances of encountering someone who has both the virus and the contact tracing app are minimal.

      1. gnasher729 Silver badge

        "With the rate the infection rates are dropping, the chances of encountering someone who has both the virus and the contact tracing app are minimal."

        You should use the app, no matter how low the infection rate is. If you are unlucky enough to get close to the last person in Britain that gets infected, then using the app can protect you from starting another outbreak.

        1. DavCrav Silver badge

          "You should use the app, no matter how low the infection rate is."

          It's one of these game theory type problems, a version of the tragedy of the commons. Unless 60% have the app, there's not much point in you downloading it yourself. You have to each take a collective responsibility. Given the ravers/shoppers/protestors/Cummings/beachgoers/general dickheads, I cannot imagine we'll get anywhere near 60%.

    3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      "more attempts at early diagnosis of people with no or mild symptoms"

      I've been having a rethink about this. Is there a genetic element on the viral side to asymptomatic infections? Killing the host is a poor strategy for a virus. This particular virus is endemic to bats. Presumably it has adapted to the bat environment to be able to propagate without causing significant damage to the bats so the ground isn't littered with bats falling out of the sky. It isn't. however, similarly adapted to the human environment, or not completely so, but like all viruses it does mutate. Darwinian thinking suggests that it should evolve to become harmless like the coronaviruses that cause common colds.

      If there is a spectrum of harmfulness in the various viral strains then we'll already have been exerting a selection pressure in favour of the milder varieties by isolating those with symptoms and their households and segregating those with the worst symptoms in hospital for treatment. Track and trace based only on the symptomatic cases would increase that pressure. Does the variability needed for this to work exist? It's one of the things I'd expect virologists to be looking at because its such an obvious issue but I haven't read anything about it.

      Nevertheless tracing of contacts should be followed up with testing; there's no point in isolating those who didn't catch anything.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        I understand bats have immune systems that are particularly resistant to viral illness - which is an adaptive advantage if you spend all winter huddled up next to hundreds of your mates in a damp cave, but does mean they are quite good at harbouring zoonotic diseases that do kill other species.

      2. Steve Crook

        That's the plan

        IIRC if you're contact traced, you'll be offered a test. But. It doesn't get you out of jail if it's negative. You still have to do the quarantine. I guess they're wary of false negatives, though that doesn't exactly fill me full of confidence if the Test part of Test, Track and Trace.

        1. DavCrav Silver badge

          Re: That's the plan

          "IIRC if you're contact traced, you'll be offered a test. But. It doesn't get you out of jail if it's negative. You still have to do the quarantine. I guess they're wary of false negatives, though that doesn't exactly fill me full of confidence if the Test part of Test, Track and Trace."

          I just read this, and you are correct. The thinking is not so much false negative (although that happens) as delayed positive. At the time of testing you aren't shedding virus, so you will test negative. Then you later go on to shed it far and wide.

          I am unsure whether any other countries are trying this approach.

      3. Charlie Clark Silver badge

        Is there a genetic element on the viral side to asymptomatic infections?

        As with most infections this does appear to be the case, though it's difficult to make out amongst all the other data: age, gender (men are more susceptible), existing conditions.

        The last data I saw on how infectious people without symptons are didn't look like there were many "covid Molly's" around. People with viral infections are often infectious without symptons early on as the virus multiplies (this itself is a key part of the strategy).

        As you say, testing is key. As is properly funded primary care.

      4. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

        "...harmless like the coronaviruses that cause common colds."

        I'm not sure we have a clear picture of that. People who die with or because of "flu" aren't routinely tested to see what viruses are actually present. I've read papers suggesting the endemic coronaviruses are often diagnosed as flu but might be orders of magnitude more dangerous that typical "seasonal" strains of influenza. I've lost the link.

        The rest is fine. It's been suggested each of us have 8-12 chronic, "asymptomatic" viral passengers. It's certainly reasonable that some of us might be immune. It could also be that most of the people who are going to spread covid-19 far and wide have already contracted it. The spread from here on in could be much slower with flare ups as it reaches superspreaders who haven't been in contact with other superspreaders and that ignites an isolated chain.

      5. Diogenes

        Genetric Elemet

        Is there a genetic element on the viral side to asymptomatic infections?

        There are some doctors/statisticians wondering if this is the case … whether some people that may have version x of the common cold in the past may have been given immunity or indeed whether the variant that has the UK is different enough to cause different mortality figures …

        then there is this https://forecasters.org/blog/2020/06/14/forecasting-for-covid-19-has-failed/

  2. Adair Silver badge

    With grateful thanks to the Python crew [no not you Guido]

    Some things in life are bad

    They can really make you mad

    Other things just make you swear and curse

    When you're chewing on life's gristle

    Don't grumble, give a whistle

    And this'll help things turn out for the best

    And always look on the bright side of life

    Always look on the light side of life

    If life seems jolly rotten

    There's something you've forgotten

    And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing

    When you're feeling in the dumps

    Don't be silly chumps

    Just purse your lips and whistle, that's the thing

    And always look on the bright side of life

    Come on!

    Always look on the right side of life

    For life is quite absurd

    And death's the final word

    You must always face the curtain with a bow

    Forget about your sin

    Give the audience a grin

    Enjoy it, it's your last chance anyhow

    So, always look on the bright side of death

    A-just before you draw your terminal breath

    Life's a piece of shit

    When you look at it

    Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true

    You'll see it's all a show

    Keep 'em laughing as you go

    Just remember that the last laugh is on you

    And always look on the bright side of life

    Always look on the right side of life

    C'mon Brian, cheer up!

    Always look on the bright side of life

    Always look on the bright side of life

    Worse things happen at sea, you know

    Always look on the bright side of life

    I mean, what have you got to lose

    You know, you come from nothing, you're going back to nothing

    What have you lost? Nothing!

    Always look on the right side of life...

    Nothing will come from nothing, you know what they say?

    Cheer up you old bugger, c'mon give us a grin!

    There you are, see, it's the end of the film

    Incidentally, this record is available in the foyer

    Some of us have to got live as well, you know

    Who do you think pays for all this rubbish

    They're not gonna make their money back, you know

    I told them, I said to them, Bernie, I said they'll never make their money back

  3. Oh Matron! Silver badge

    "Sadly, things in the UK are worse"

    Quite.

  4. bilston
    Flame

    Oh what a suprise

    As one who has been involved with the shambles that is the NHS, Courts, and other government IT projects, I would have been astounded if it had been ready on time. District management (I use the word management loosely) was always utterly useless at understanding local needs (because they never spoke to the users much) and this meant a re writing of every thing when the local users discovered it didn't do what they needed. Didn't worry me I was paid by the hour.

  5. Chris G Silver badge

    I was tempted to compare BJ with Fred Karno (allegedly the inventor of the custard pie in the face) and his army but Fred was actually a genius who achieved a lot and got things done. He did also change the face of comedy so Beej does have at least one thing in common with Fred Karno.

  6. Dr Who

    Foreign suppliers

    Nobody told the American and Swiss developers that much as it is a lovely place to visit, things happen ever so slowly on the Isle of Wight.

    Plus ça change plus ç'est la même chose as they say in (some parts of) Switzerland.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It is odd that the UK system requires contactees to undergo what almost amounts to house-arrest for 2 weeks without any option to get a test - maybe the government are expecting a shedload of cases and/or know how limited the UK testing capability actually is.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      There's no limit to testing - we have millions of q-tips, envelopes and Matt Hancock popped out and bought a new book of stamps.

      Just don't ask about analyzing tests - that's a different issue....

      1. Chris G Silver badge

        They don't even tell the truth about those few that have actually been tested, count multiple tests on one individual as 'tests'.

        Proper planned testing9in significant numbers) on demand by anyone who even thinks they have a sniffle with results that are accessible by those who can do something with the results would be useful but that's a bit advanced for the current lot and I don't think a change of government would improve things.

        Any chance of switching things off and then on again?

        1. DavCrav Silver badge

          "They don't even tell the truth about those few that have actually been tested, count multiple tests on one individual as 'tests'."

          That's nothing. In Florida they count the number of infections as the number of positive samples. So if you test positive four times, you appear four times in the statistics.

          You can only die once though, so it makes their mortality figures look a bit better.

          1. genghis_uk Bronze badge

            According to the official statistics, if you do not have an underlying health condition, you stand little to no chance of dying if you are under 50, slightly increased risk between 50 and 65 but a high risk in the 70+ group... There will be out-lyers but, in terms of risk, you stand more chance of dying in an accident if you are under 50.

            source:https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/deathsinvolvingcovid19englandandwales/deathsoccurringinapril2020

            See section 5

            I know this flyies in the face of the panic caused by the media! They are not my stats or my interpretation... actually, they are the government stats that the media ought to be reporting instead of this 'we're all going to die!' BS (that is _my_ interpretation)

            Florida, with it's population demographic, must have some very skewed mortality figures given that it is tracking the WHO average https://covidusa.net/?autorefresh=1&state=Florida

            1. osakajin Bronze badge

              Rather begs the questuon why governments have destroyed economy and are brainwashing people into the new normal. Massive manipulation and destruction for.... nothing.

              Dont drink the kool aid people.

            2. DavCrav Silver badge

              "According to the official statistics, if you do not have an underlying health condition, you stand little to no chance of dying if you are under 50, slightly increased risk between 50 and 65 but a high risk in the 70+ group... There will be out-lyers but, in terms of risk, you stand more chance of dying in an accident if you are under 50."

              This is, unfortunately, not true. It's playing around with statistics to obtain an answer, but it's not the right one. Left unchecked, essentially all people will catch COVID-19. Thus the correct figure is to take the mortality rate from those who have it, not from the whole population. Doing so yields a mortality rate for healthy individuals of the order of magnitude of 0.1%. That is way higher than your chance of dying in an accident. A mortality rate of 0.1% for the roughly 40m healthy under 50s would be about 40k dead.

              By comparison, the all-causes mortality rate for 25-34 year olds in the UK is about 1 in 2000, so 0.05%. COVID-19 isn't the plague, but the fact that it infects many many people very quickly means that lots of people die, even with a very low mortality rate.

              1. osakajin Bronze badge

                How do you know how many people have it?

                1. DavCrav Silver badge

                  "How do you know how many people have it?"

                  I don't. What I can do is get the right number of digits in the number, which is important. For assessing numbers of deaths, you are looking at five figures, not three. If it spread like wildfire tens of thousands of working-age people would die. Oh, and hundreds of thousands of pensioners, because good luck trying to create a firewall between all over-50s and all under-50s.

  8. Potemkine!

    Which countries are the more hit compared with similar ones? UK, US and Brazil. All governed by a populist nut who uses division and hatred as a mean to gain and keep power.

    This is an absolutely not scientific-based opinion, but facts seem to show that getting rid of such buffoons would be a greater help to the public health than an app that can be a threat to privacy.

    See for instance here, or how to use a tracing app to ensure the person a company want to work with for a small period of time (approximative translation: The ROTTEN company wants to recruit someone for a short period of time. It want to be sure the candidate doesn't get sick between the job interview and signing the contract. It uses then a dedicated phone which is on only during the interview, and will get an alert if the person is tested as positive later.)

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Visibility over Bluetooth

    Bluetooth isn't really my wheelhouse, but I'm sure there are some experts out there in the commentardiat, so a question....

    Like any security-conscious individual I have Bluetooth set up so that my phone isn't visible to devices that it isn't already paired with - I specifically make my phone visible when I need to pair it with a new thing.

    If these contact tracing apps rely on Bluetooth, will they actually be able to detect phones which are hidden like that, or would they rely on people making their phones visible? I'm wondering if hidden means hidden, or if there's something in lower levels of the stack which allow a hidden device to be detected.

    1. gnasher729 Silver badge

      Re: Visibility over Bluetooth

      You enable the tracking manually. On iOS from the same "Settings" screen that controls Bluetooth. So if you enable tracking, it will override your Bluetooth settings for this single purpose. If you don't enable tracking, it doesn't do anything.

      Most important, you are not identifiable.

    2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Visibility over Bluetooth

      The generate and transmit random ids which are kept on the phone until someone tests positive, receives and activates their account at which point their ids for the relevant period are distributed to every phone who check the list against ids they've received. The hashing has been reviewed but, as with all these things there remains a slight risk, which is why some journalists and lawyers have asked for some exceptions.

      BTW Bluetooth is only entirely invisible when it's disabled, which is why it's used in some shops for footfall detection – there's not a lot of identification you can do without people logging in: wifi and IMEI's from nano cells are more useful there.

  10. Frogmaster

    So track and trace is useful or even necessary to control the spread of the virus, the announcements from BJ and MH are of the order "Look, we are doing something, working really hard, ...." just to divert attention, a la "Look into my Eyes". Like the 750,000 volunteers that signed up in March the tracers seem to have nothing to do, one I know who is on it full-time had not yet had a single call. And they didn't take furloughed people.

    What really galled was Her Highness Dido, when asked what the learnings had been, saying that they were getting better at calling people at convenient times. Ye gods.....

    <sarcasm>wonder if we need someone Trump-like here to drain the swamp</sarcasm>

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    England has only relaxed lockdown as soon as thry have to take the heat off Dictator Cummings and his illegal trips.

    We thought he was stupid saying he went for a drive to test his eyes, but no, he was just laughing at us. He knew the only person that could fire him was himself.

    And all because they need him for forthcoming brexit PR.

    The country is fucked

  12. osakajin Bronze badge

    Ive been thinking you could have a lot of fun locking up your mates and people you dont like by telling the powers that you encountered them. Is this the viral version of SWATTING?

  13. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    The Covid money pot

    The German government spent around € 20 million on this app development. Now, while it has been peer-reviewed and the criticism of crypto and privacy experts was taken on board, that's still quite a lot for a glorified IRC-server! Well, what would you expect with SAP and Deutsche Telekom doing the work?

    The various vaccination programmes are similarly generously supported and, while I'm sure some Silicon Valley designer furniture and fatboy beanbags will now be getting installed, I'm not that worried as vaccination has for years been underfunded. But it's important that we continue with the day-to-day vaccinations for polio, measles and the like along with work on treating resistant TB and they don't get side-lined by the first world's latest pet problem.

    1. Kernel

      Re: The Covid money pot

      " along with work on treating resistant TB and they don't get side-lined by the first world's latest pet problem."

      Indeed! - the latest figures I've seen (from 2017) indicated that someone, somewhere in the world, dies from TB every 23 seconds - with the Wu Flu it's only somewhere in the region of one every 58 seconds.

      It is important that we don't loose site of the fact that there are other, older, diseases that are still killing at a far greater rate, many years after they have become an insignifiant issue for those of us lucky enough to live in the right countries.

      1. Louis Schreurs Bronze badge

        Re: The Covid money pot

        sight

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The household effect

    People aren’t factoring in the household effect which acts as an amplifier to the uptake. If one person in a family is exposed to the virus and actually ends up contracting it, they will spread it to their family members. That also means that if one person in a household was told by the app that they’ve been exposed, they and their family members should lay low for a while and self isolate. So the reach of the app is greater than just the sum of the individual users.

    And this 60% thing is just plain bullshit. Any bit helps and the more that use it the more will then join. It will start slowly but will keep compounding. Remember that we have a long road ahead. The government can do a lot hear to encourage usage and decent people will encourage their friends and family to use it. Australia started slow but now it’s being used quite broadly. They’re the poster boy in the West for actually dealing with this shit properly.

    Why the fuck is the UK gov reinventing the wheel? Shopify volunteers built the perfect app that works flawlessly, is secure, scalable, open source and uses the most privacy preserving technology available through the iOS and Android apis.. Thank God the Canadian government is finally getting off their lazy asses and adopting it after it was handed to them on a silver platter months ago.

    1. DavCrav Silver badge

      Re: The household effect

      "And this 60% thing is just plain bullshit. Any bit helps and the more that use it the more will then join. It will start slowly but will keep compounding."

      No it won't. See my post earlier about percolation. It's not just the app, of course, self-isolation, contact-tracing, social distancing, etc., all play a role. But they need to add up to effectively 60% (or whatever the precise value is) to prevent a runaway infection.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Reporting errors

    I‘d suggest to update the story. The overwhelming amout of steps on the way towards a result are voluntary

    i) BT on/off, ii) entering holder is positive, iii) quarantine for those who receive info their phone was close to positive-tested person‘s phone again entirely voluntary

    There‘s more voluntary dots where the reporting at least suggests a step is automatic or compulsory when in fact it is again voluntary.

    This opt-out nature feeds most of the criticisms but may also be key to high adoption. Next week we‘ll know more...

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2020