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UK ditches its coronavirus-tracing app in favour of Apple-Google tech

By Aditi Khanna
June 18, 2020 22:02 IST
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In what has been branded a major U-turn, the United Kingdom government on Thursday announced plans to ditch its coronavirus contact-tracing smartphone application in favour of the platform being developed by technology giants Apple and Google.

IMAGE: UK National Health Service employee Anni Adams looks at new NHS app to trace contacts with people potentially infected with the coronavirus disease being trialled on Isle of Wight, Britain. Photograph: Isla Binnie/Reuters

The Department of Health and Social Care said that following a phase of 'rigorous' field testing and a trial of its app on the Isle of Wight on the south coast of England, challenges were identified with its version as well as the Google-Apple framework.

It said that as a result of its initial work, the UK will now be taking forward a solution that brings together the work on the National Health Service app and the Google/Apple solution.

 

"We knew from the start that we would need to test and learn as we developed this new technology," said UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

"As we enter this next phase of research and development we remain determined to continue in our ambition to develop an app which meets the technical, security and user needs of the public and which can complement the NHS Test and Trace service," he said.

Countries across the globe have faced challenges in developing an app which gets all of these elements right, but through ongoing international collaboration we hope to learn, improve and find a solution which will strengthen our global response to this virus, the minister added.

The government said its decision allows it to develop an app that will bring together the functionality required to carry out contact tracing, but also making it easy to order tests, and access proactive advice and guidance to aid self-isolation.

"As part of a collaborative approach we have agreed to share our own innovative work on estimating distance between app users with Google and Apple, work that we hope will benefit others, while using their solution to address some of the specific technical challenges identified through our rigorous testing," Baroness Dido Harding, Executive Chair of NHS Test and Trace, and Matthew Gould, CEO of NHSX -- the digital arm of the NHS, said in a joint statement.

"Our ambition is to develop an app which will enable anyone with a smartphone to engage with every aspect of the NHS Test and Trace service, from ordering a test through to accessing the right guidance and advice. This will support our vision of helping more people get back to the most normal life possible at the lowest risk," they said.

The NHS COVID-19 app had more of a centralised approach, raising some concerns around privacy. The Apple-Google design has been promoted as a more privacy-focused version. The NHS has been testing both systems against each other over the course of the past month.

The centralised NHS version was trialled on the Isle of Wight and is believed to have worked well at assessing the distance between two users, but was poor at recognising Apple's iPhones. By contrast, the Apple-Google model logged 99 per cent of both Android mobiles and iPhones but its distance calculations were weaker.

Contact tracing apps work by logging when two people have been in close proximity to each other for a substantial period of time. If one of the users is later diagnosed as having the disease, an alert can be sent to others they have recently been close to, telling them that they should also get tested and/or self-isolate.

The Department of Health said that at this stage an app based on the Google-Apple application programming interface appears most likely to address some of the specific limitations identified through its field testing.

However, there is still more work to do on the Google-Apple solution, which does not currently estimate distance in the way required.

The NHS Test and Trace programme was introduced a few weeks ago as part of the early stages of easing the UK out of lockdown and data published on Thursday shows that 14,045 people who tested positive for COVID-19 in England had their case transferred to the contact tracing system during the first two weeks of the launch. Around 25 per cent people were not reached and a further 3 per cent did not provide contact details.

The rollout of the app, to complement and further boost the system, is expected in a few months' time across England, with the devolved governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales yet to finalise their plans on any new app.

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Aditi Khanna
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