Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga apologized Friday for the health ministry’s failure to discover a technical glitch that has rendered its smartphone app for COVID-19 contact tracing useless for Android users since September last year.
About a third of the nearly 25 million people who downloaded the COCOA app have been unable to receive alerts that they have been in proximity to someone who has tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Photo taken Feb. 3, 2021, outside the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Tokyo shows the Japanese government’s free smartphone application for alerting users they may have been in close proximity to someone infected with the novel coronavirus. (Kyodo)
The glitch is a blow to Suga, who has vowed to make digital technology the focus of Japan’s growth strategy and is already seeing his approval ratings plummet amid criticism of the government’s sluggish pandemic response.
“I’m deeply sorry…It is my responsibility to thoroughly look into the matter so it never happens again,” Suga said during a House of Representatives committee meeting, while dismissing calls from opposition lawmakers for health minister Norihisa Tamura to be disciplined.
COCOA uses Bluetooth wireless technology to compile records of people who have been within a meter of each other for more than 15 minutes. Individuals who test positive for the coronavirus can register when they developed symptoms in the app, which then sends out alerts to people who have been in close contact.
But the app has been plagued with problems since its rollout in June, with people initially unable to register positive results.
The developers were unaware of the glitch affecting Android users, caused by a September update to the app, until an anonymous post on programming platform GitHub.com identified the issue in late November.
Kenta Izumi of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan criticized the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare for overlooking a “basic mistake” that he said could have easily been prevented.
The ministry also came under fire from Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party, with former industry minister Hiroshige Seko calling its failure to quickly disclose and fix the issue “extremely problematic.”