The decision to trial the revamped NHS contact-tracing app in a more diverse area of the country is a “step in the right direction”, the leader of a network for women of colour in digital health has said.

But Shuri Network co-founder Dr Shera Chok said it was “not clear” why a trial of the app in an ethnically-diverse area was not done from the start.

Dr Chok said: “If we are serious about digital inclusion and reducing the risk of Covid-19 in vulnerable groups such as the elderly and BAME populations then we must test and refine new technologies amongst, and with input from, diverse groups.”

The app was first trialled in the Isle of Wight in May, sparking questions about inclusion and diversity. After several weeks of trials and field tests the app was abandoned due to technical failings.

A revamped version of the app began trials in the London Borough of Newham on 21 August.

“Choosing Newham as a test site is a step in the right direction, although it is not clear why this was not done from the start,” Dr Chok said.

“Building trust and good communication with local communities will be essential, as is acting on the feedback the NHS receives from them about the new app.”

Mayor of Newham Rokhsana Fiaz added: “We know that Newham has seen some of the most significant impacts of Covid-19 due to the health inequalities and vulnerabilities in our communities.

“With the threat of Covid-19 still with us, it’s vital we support our residents to keep safe and help others. The app is a welcomed addition to all the measures that our public health team have put in place working closely with our local health partners.”

Coronavirus and ethnicity

The government has been widely criticised for failing to adequately collect and analyse data on black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) cases of Covid-19 after several reports highlighted the increased risk of Covid-19 in BAME communities.

Office of National Statistics figures published in May revealed black people are four times more likely to die from the virus than white people.

The Shuri Network, established to support BAME women in digital health, previously warned the problem cannot be passed between departments as a “hot potato too difficult to confront”.

Public Health England conducted a rapid review aimed at reducing the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on these communities, which concluded that the collection and recording of ethnicity data to inform national responses to the pandemic should be mandated.

Despite this, a data protection impact assessment of the NHS Covid-19 data store, established to collect data to inform the government’s response to the virus, revealed that health data on the virus would not be broken down by ethnicity.

The trial of the app in an ethnically diverse area that has seen “significant impacts” of Covid-19 is vital for the Department of Health and Social Care to adequately understand how the virus moves among people of different ethnicities, as well as how different communities will use the digital solution.

You can read more about the NHS contact-tracing app, and the criticism surrounding it, on our timeline piece here.