Coronavirus: Government shifts to Google-Apple model for delayed contact-tracing app

NHS design ditched as trials show it only picked up 4 per cent of contacts on Apple phones

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Thursday 18 June 2020 18:42 BST
Matt Hancock says test and trace 'app won't work because Apple won't change their system'

The government has ditched plans to develop a custom-made contact-tracing app in favour of a new model after the rollout was beset with problems.

In a major U-turn, ministers announced a switch to technology provided by Apple and Google – abandoning an NHS model which aimed to give the health service greater access to patient data.

Officials admitted the app, designed by the health service’s tech arm NHSX, was highly inaccurate, picking up just 4 per cent of contacts on Apple phones and 75 per cent of contacts on Android handsets.

The model designed by the tech giants picked up 99 per cent of contacts on both Android and iPhones.

The shift raises questions over how much time and money was wasted pursuing a bespoke app, and comes after the health minister Lord Bethell admitted that the smartphone app might not be ready for national rollout until the winter.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told the daily Downing Street briefing that trials of the app revealed 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.

Pressed on whether the government had wasted time on its own app, Mr Hancock said: “No, actually quite the contrary, I’m from Newmarket, we back both horses.

“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 refused to put a date on the wider rollout of the app, saying: “We’re working on it. We’re not going to put a date on it, I’m afraid because I’m absolutely determined that, whilst this technology can help, it’s got to be working effectively.”

Baroness Harding, the executive chair of NHS Test and Trace, added: “The reality is if we had not backed both horses we wouldn’t have a way forward.

“Precisely because we’ve developed our own and developed some really sophisticated distance calculations we think that we can enhance the Google-Apple platform such that it will work.”

The NHSX app, which has been piloted on the Isle of Wight, was expected to play a critical role in the test and trace system aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus as the lockdown eases.

However the national rollout has been repeatedly delayed. The UK-wide launch was originally pencilled in for May but ministers decided to go ahead with launching their test and trace programme without it.

The NHS app notified users if they have been in close proximity with Covid-19 sufferers by using Bluetooth signals from people’s smartphones.

However it ran into difficulty on iPhones, where Bluetooth from third-party apps could not run continually in the background.

Officials say the NHS app was more successful in detecting proximity than the Apple-Google model and this knowledge could feed into the software developed by the tech giants.

The UK originally pursued its own app as officials wanted a “centralised” design, which means the matching between infected person and contact will take place on a central database.

It was hoped that this would allow the NHS to track if there were spikes of coronavirus cases in certain parts of the country.

However other countries have gone for the decentralised model developed by Google and Apple, where the exchange happens on the phone, rather than on a central database, which is favoured by privacy campaigners.

Labour’s Jon Ashworth said the move was another example of how the government’s response to coronavirus has been “slow and badly managed”.

“It’s meant precious time and money wasted,” the shadow health secretary said.

“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.”

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, cautiously welcomed the switch, which she said would ease fears amongst privacy campaigners.

She said: “This announcement is welcome news given the data privacy and human rights concerns which we raised with government regarding the NHSX app.

“Amnesty has previously set out the seven key principles that should guide the government’s choice of app and how it is developed and rolled out.

“That includes using the more privacy protecting decentralised model so that people’s data isn’t collected centrally by the state.”

It comes as new NHS data revealed almost eight out of 10 people with Covid-19 were reached by contact tracers within 24 hours of their positive test result.

During the first two weeks of test and trace programme, 87,639 people identified as close contacts of people who had tested positive for Covid-19 were reached through the tracing system.

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