UK to replace contact-tracing app with Apple and Google model

The UK government is to abandon its contentious contact-tracing app in favour of a new model, based on Apple and Google technology, which will not be ready until the autumn at the earliest.

The U-turn, announced on Thursday, follows months of wrangling as the original UK app — designed by NHSX, the health service’s innovation arm — was beset with technical problems and delays and criticised by privacy campaigners.

The decision is an embarrassment for ministers, who originally presented the app as a vital part of the “test and trace” system to contain the spread of coronavirus as the country emerged from lockdown.

The UK’s reversal comes as both Germany and Italy this week rolled out apps based on Apple and Google’s system across their entire populations. Canada also announced on Thursday it will use the Silicon Valley companies’ technology in a forthcoming contact-tracing app of its own.

Jonathan Ashworth, the UK’s shadow health secretary, branded the government’s move as “unsurprising” and meant that “precious time and money” had been wasted, adding it was yet another example of the government’s “slow and badly managed” response to the pandemic.

NHSX initially tried to develop its own app which gathered anonymised Bluetooth “contacts” between app users and alerted people if they had been close to someone who later developed the virus. It would have stored contact information on a central database, which officials said was vital in enabling public health teams to track the spread of the disease. 

At the same time, Google and Apple devised enhancements to Android and the iPhone’s operating system that helps connect Bluetooth signals between phones without draining the battery as much. For privacy reasons, however, the two tech companies would only allow “decentralised” storage of information about user contacts on individual phone handsets.

UK ministers decided to abandon the NHSX model after “rigorous testing” showed that it was not effective on Apple smartphones. NHSX will now work to combine its own proximity-detection technology, developed by researchers at London’s Turing Institute and app developers Zuhlke, with the Apple and Google system. Their aim is to release a new product in the autumn or winter.

Without being able to make more detailed estimates of how close people have been to an infected individual, any contact tracing app would risk sending out too many “false positives”, telling people to stay at home when they do not need to.

That could have “huge economic consequences”, according to one person involved in the app project, and remains a risk for other countries such as Italy and Germany that have already launched apps without the UK’s enhanced distance-tracking technology.

But in a blow to tracing efforts, officials involved in the UK’s test and trace programme emphasised that even by the autumn, the app technology might still not enable accurate contact-tracing. Instead, the app might just be used to report coronavirus symptoms and order a test.

In the meantime, the core job of contact-tracing will be done by the government’s army of 27,000 call handlers.

Matt Hancock, health secretary, appeared to lay the blame for the app’s failure with Apple, which will not allow countries pursuing centralised models to use a workaround which improves Bluetooth function between phones. He also emphasised the weaknesses in the Apple-Google system.

“Our app won’t work because Apple won’t change their system, but it can measure distance. And their app can’t measure distance well enough to a standard that we are satisfied with,” he told the Downing Street press conference.

Pushed on whether the government had spent too long developing the NHSX app, Mr Hancock replied: “No, actually quite the contrary . . . We took the decision in May to start building the Google-Apple version as well and then because we built both we could test both.”

He added that the UK was facing a “technical barrier” shared with “every other country” which was developing contact tracing apps.

The decision to abandon the NHSX app appears to have been taken abruptly, after the prime minister and his team became increasingly impatient with the speed of progress. Insiders at the tech companies were taken by surprise when the switch to their system was announced on Thursday.

According to data from trials on the Isle of Wight, the NHSX app registered contacts between 75 per cent of Android handsets but only between 4 per cent of iPhones. By contrast, the model developed using Apple and Google technology registered 99 per cent of contacts on both Android phones and iPhones. 

However, the Apple and Google system was less effective than the UK app in calculating distance between phones: developers found it struggled to differentiate between a handset in a user’s pocket 1 metre away and a phone in a user’s hand 3 metres away.

The Financial Times revealed last month that NHSX was developing a parallel app using technology provided by Google and Apple — the first time the scale of concerns about the app’s workability had become clear.

Additional reporting by Laura Hughes

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