8 July 2020
Zoe Trinder-Widdess, Communications Manager at NIHR ARC West, describes the process of producing the UK’s first coronavirus support and information app.
On the Sunday before lockdown was announced, we were on what we suspected would be our last walk with friends for some time. Maybe our last walk for some time. Phrases like ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ were entering everyone’s vocabulary. Most people hadn’t quite come to terms with the invisible 2-metre bubbles we’d all be living in for the next few months.
While trying to enjoy the sunshine and push away the rising panic of the pandemic, I got a call from Knut Schroeder, a GP who leads app development company Expert Self Care. They were developing a free not-for-profit coronavirus information app to help people access the latest information and advice, and he wondered if I wanted to be involved.
Like many people, I wanted to feel useful and to help in some way. This was an opportunity to put my skills to use in the coronavirus effort.
Knut had quickly assembled a team of more than 40 healthcare professionals, academics, topic experts and members of the public. Over the following weeks, this team worked on developing the content for the app, which covered everything from how to spot misinformation to what to do if you got symptoms.
Immersing myself in this process was calming. It was such an absorbing experience that, despite my daughter trying to alert me to what was going on, I even managed to miss our neighbours’ car being broken into right outside the window where I was working.
It was only a few weeks before the Coronavirus Support App (UK) was ready to be submitted to the Google and Apple app stores. And that’s where things got tricky. Expert Self-Care are certified by the NHS Information Standard as a provider of reliable health information, with previous apps available on the NHS app library. They had dealt with difficult subjects, such as self-harm, in a responsible way before. With this track record we’d all assumed that getting the app published would be a cinch.
The companies that dominate the online space were taking unprecedented steps to prioritise information from reliable sources and counteract misinformation about the virus. Understandably, both tech giants were hyper-vigilant when it came to apps relating to coronavirus. But they had failed to communicate their stringent new measures to the people developing the apps.
Google’s response was to reject the app outright, and to threaten Expert Self Care with blacklisting. My suspicion is that it didn’t even get looked at by a human. They threw an algorithm at it and the mention of the C word raised a red flag.
Apple were more nuanced. They wanted to know if the app had been commissioned by the NHS. Although many of the people involved in the app’s production were employed by the NHS, it’s not like the work had been specifically requested by it. Two of the nine partners wrote official letters of support, and the app was resubmitted.
Finally, after several weeks of waiting, the app was accepted by Apple, and Google soon followed suit after we successfully appealed their initial decision. But by this time, some of the app’s content was out of date. Lockdown had partially eased in England, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were all following their own paths out of lockdown. What had been a simple message of stay home except for these few reasons became a more confusing picture. Keeping the content up to date through this gradual easing was a whole new challenge.
For a while I thought this app would never see the light of day. Working on it had been a form of therapy during those early weeks of lockdown, but still it would have been awful to see all this hard work wasted. It was frustrating to think how many people could have benefitted from the app when coronavirus was at its peak.
Getting the app green lit by Google and Apple took a lot of dogged work. It may not feel like the best time to be launching a coronavirus app, but the virus is still very much with us, as Leicester’s recent local lockdown proves.
And we may yet see a second wave. Whether we do or not, from developing this app we now understand the full range of information people need in a pandemic. Second wave or not, this app could be useful in the future if we find ourselves in a similar situation. Though, like the Nightingale hospitals, we can only hope that it isn’t needed.