Government ditches current Covid-19 app for Google-Apple model

18 June 2020, 14:28

The government appears to have switched from the original NHS contact-tracing app
The government appears to have switched from the original NHS contact-tracing app. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The Government has announced it will switch its development of the existing NHS coronavirus app to a new system using Apple and Google.

The Department of Health outlined the new approach on Thursday in what is seen as the latest in a string of government U-turns.

The Covid-19 contact-tracing app, which was being trialled on the Isle of Wight since the beginning of May, appears to have been switched with a more privacy-focused and decentralised model.

However, using technology companies in place of a centralised approach means epidemiologists will not have access to as much data.

Ministers had previously stressed that their model was superior to those being proposed by the tech giants, however a report by the Mirror suggests the NHSX app has run into "problems".

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the NHS app had undergone "rigorous testing" and he remained "determined" to develop an app "which meets the technical, security and user needs of the public.

"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," he added.

Read more: Government launches track and trace program in England

Read more: Matt Hancock 'not going to put a date on when Covid-19 tracing app' will be available

Speaking at the government's daily press briefing, Mr Hancock defended the decision to abandon developing the NHSX app in favour of joining forces with the Apple and Google project.

At the Downing Street press conference he said testing on the Isle of Wight uncovered a "technical barrier".

"We found that our app works well on Android devices but Apple software prevents iPhones being used effectively for contact tracing unless you are using Apple's own technology," he said.

He said that the NHSX app was better at measuring distance than the Google/Apple model.

"As it stands, 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."

A joint statement issued by Baroness Dido Harding, executive chair of NHS Test and Trace and Matthew Gould, CEO, NHSX, read: "Our response to this virus has and will continue to be as part of an international effort.

"That is why 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. 

The government has faced criticism over the length of time it has taken to get an app un-and-running and over the decision to gather data from users of the app in a centralised database, rather than using a system offered by Apple and Google which would store most data on the user's own phone.

Despite the switch, it is expected the user interface will remain unchanged.

Creating a successful contact-tracing app is seen as vital in preventing a second wave of coronavirus and works by logging when two people have been in close proximity to each other for a substantial period of time.

If one person is later diagnosed with Covid-19 an alert would be sent to others they have recently been close to, telling them that they should also get tested and/or self-isolate.

Ministers are believed to be working with phone developers to create a new "third-way" app that will incorporate the best of both systems.

Conservative MP David Davis said it was a "wise" move to switch to the technology company-led model.

He wrote on Twitter: "This is a wise decision from government. The Google-Apple decentralised model is superior and will be quicker to roll out.

"Austria, Italy, Germany and Switzerland are already using contact tracing apps based on the Google-Apple model."

Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, responded to the announcement, saying: “This is unsurprising and yet another example of where the government’s response has been slow and badly managed. It’s meant precious time and money wasted.

“For months, tech experts warned ministers about the flaws in their app which is why we wrote to Matt Hancock encouraging the government to consider digital alternatives back in May.

“Ministers must now urgently prioritise building a fully effective test, trace and isolate regime lead by local expertise to break the chains of transmission of this deadly virus.”

The move to the decentralised app brings the UK in line with most European countries, with France also expected to make the switch.

Similar approaches could pave the way for border quarantines being lifted and allowing future travel between countries.

The government believed that holding users' data on the contacts they have with each other in a centralised manner would help them develop valuable epidemiological data about how the virus is spreading and prevent people disrupting the system, allowing authorities to have the edge when detecting false positives.

However, the Apple-Google model will see the process carried out on the user's phones, making it more difficult for the authorities or hackers to get access to the records and use them for nefarious means.

The NHS' Test and Trace system was launched in England at the end of May and was described by Mr Hancock as helpling the country "move away from blanket national lockdown towards a more targeted lockdown hunting down the virus where we find it."

A health minister had previously admitted the app would not be ready until winter, despite the government promising to have it ready by May.

Lord Bethell said the Department of Health was not "seeking to get something going for the winter" and confessed to a committee of MPs that the app is "not the priority at the moment".