Japanese Government Must Reflect Seriously on Leaving COCOA Glitch Unfixed

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has left a glitch on an app unfixed for as long as four months, even though it urged the public to use the app as a key tool to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading further. The ministry’s handling of the matter must be criticized as pure negligence.

The ministry has announced that 30% of the users of the smartphone app named COCOA (COVID-19 Contact-Confirming Application) have been unable since last September to utilize the function that notifies users about possible contact with people infected with the virus.

Out of about 24.6 million downloads of the software since its introduction in June last year, the glitch has continued on about 7.7 million downloads for Google’s Android operating system, failing to notify users of close contact with people with COVID-19.

COCOA uses the Bluetooth short-range wireless telecommunications system for smartphones to record contact with users “at a range of one meter or less for 15 minutes or more.” Once an infected user registers with the app’s management system, a notification is sent to other users who have been in contact with them over the previous 14 days.

If people were to have received this notice and had taken such measures as getting a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and refraining from going out, it would have had some effect during the period when infections surged from autumn last year. But things certainly did not work that way. It was only natural for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to apologize and express his intention to conduct a thorough investigation into the matter.

The glitch is said to have occurred when a contractor upgraded the app in September. Flaws often appear in an app when it is upgraded. However, the ministry, which ordered the upgrade, left the work to the contractor and failed to check whether the revised app would run properly on actual devices.

Many people on social media made such comments as, “I was apparently in contact with an infected person, but I didn’t receive a notification.” But the ministry did not investigate the matter until it was reported in the media and discussed in the Diet in January, so the ministry’s response to the matter was delayed. It must be said that the ministry lacked a sense of responsibility as the body that placed the order for the app to be upgraded.

Use of COCOA is voluntary. In a bid to protect people’s personal information, the government is not allowed to keep track of who has been notified. Under these circumstances, the government should have managed the app properly and promoted its use by making the app’s functions well known to the public. But it appears the government itself is lowering trust in the app.

The dissemination rate of the app, and the number of people who register that they have tested positive, remain low. The government envisions that the app will be used by inbound visitors to Japan, with the Tokyo Games in mind, but it is uncertain whether the app will function as the government intended.

The ministry has also been criticized for the poor usability of online applications for employment adjustment subsidies, and over a system for the central and local governments to share information on the state of coronavirus infections. It has been argued that the ministry did not manage contractors properly and failed to listen to front-line staff due to the rush to develop the systems.

Reliable systems are required for the distribution of coronavirus vaccines as well. The ministry must not repeat these blunders again.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 7, 2021.