17/05/2020 18:05 BST | Updated 18/05/2020 08:38 BST

Exclusive: Aspiring Contact Tracers Told Job Applications 'On Hold' Due To NHS App 'Delay'

Recruitment company tells job applicants government is considering an "alternative" app, but later says this was a "miscommunication and false".

Coronavirus has changed everything. Make sense of it all with the Waugh Zone, our evening politics briefing. Sign up now.

A number of applicants for coronavirus contact tracing jobs have been told their recruitment is “on hold” because of an alleged delay in the roll out of the NHS track and trace app.

In an automated email, seen by HuffPost UK, hopeful applicants were told by a recruitment company helping to manage applications for jobs listed on the government’s website that the delay was due to an “alternative” app being considered. 

The firm, HR GO Recruitment, told HuffPost UK the information was a “miscommunication and false”, blaming the email on “one individual in the business”, while the government said the email was “inaccurate” and “wrong”.

But one job applicant told HuffPost UK: “I was just a bit surprised, because I thought they were still looking for a lot more people.

“The advert is still live as well so it’s a bit confusing.

“It had gone quite quiet in terms of what was happening with the app anyway and then to hear it might not be happening, I thought ‘well what is then? What’s next really?’”

Michael Gove said on Sunday that more than 17,000 contact tracers had already been recruited and promised a test, trace and isolate programme, which is likely to involve the use of an app, would be in place by the end of the month. 

But the email, sent to people who have applied for contact tracing jobs through the Department for Work and Pensions’ “find a job” portal, raises questions about the progress of the NHSX app currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight, which alerts people if they have come into contact with someone with Covid-19 symptoms by using Bluetooth technology. 

The original email from HR GO Recruitment said on Friday: “Thank you for your online application for this role. 

“Unfortunately earlier today the roles were put on hold.  

“This is due to a delay in the launch of the ‘Track and Trace’ App itself while the government considers an alternative App.

“As and when the App (or an alternative) goes live, we will re-consider those applications already received, however please be aware that we have received an unprecedented number of applications for this role and therefore not all suitable candidates will be able to be put forward for the limited number of roles.

“We would like to thank you for your time in applying and wish you all the very best.”

The company said it was not aware of the email until Sunday.

A person on the NHS coronavirus contact tracing app being trialled on the Isle of Wight

John Parkinson, HR GO’s group chief information officer, said: “What has been said is a miscommunication and false. 

“We are not aware of any reason why track and trace would not be continuing as it should.

“We will be communicating with the applicants directly to correct that once we have completed our internal investigations.”

He added: “This incident is isolated to one individual in the business and it was sent to multiple applicants as it is an automated reply.” 

There have been more than 50,000 downloads of the NHSX  app, according to Bob Seely, the MP for the Isle of Wight, where around 80,000 adults have phones compatible with the technology.

The government has however faced criticism for adopting a “centralised” app model which has sparked concerns about privacy.

There has been speculation that it may be forced to ditch the approach in favour of the “decentralised” model supported by Apple and Google, which stores data about people’s movements on their phone rather than centrally with the government.

Last Sunday, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said the government was “learning lessons from other apps”, adding: “If we need to change our app we will do”.

But he denied that the government was developing a second app, insisting it was simply “paying attention to the other apps that exist elsewhere in the world”.

“If we need to adapt our app or move to a different model, obviously we will do,” he told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show.

A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “This email is inaccurate and we are trying to ascertain its origin because it is both wrong and could cause confusion.

“Our recruitment of contact tracers for our online and phone-based contact tracing service continues at pace. For those already recruited, their training programmes continue.

“The NHS contact tracing app is not on hold – and it would be completely wrong to suggest otherwise.

“There is no alternative app and the NHS continues to work constructively with many other organisations that are helping to develop and test the NHS Covid-19 app.”