UK confirms it will drop NHSX contact-tracing app

The UK government has given up on its troubled coronavirus contact-tracing app and will instead develop a new one based on a platform developed by Apple and Google.

The decision to switch approaches comes after repeated assertions by the government that the Apple/Google model wouldn’t allow it to respond effectively to localised COVID-19 outbreaks and direct healthcare resources where needed.

Now, the government plans to adapt the tech giants’ solution “to address some of the specific technical challenges identified through our rigorous testing” of the app developed by NHSX, which was being trialled on the Isle of Wight but has seen numerous delays and teething troubles, including poor performance when it came to recognising iPhones over Bluetooth.

It also said it would be sharing its work on “estimating distance between app users” with Apple and Google, which is reported to be a weakness with their model.

“We have identified challenges with both our app and the Google/Apple framework,” said the government in a statement.  “This is a problem that many countries around the world, like Singapore, are facing and in many cases only discovering them after whole population roll-out.”

This week Lord Bethell of Romford, the minister in charge of developing the NHSX app, told the Commons science and technology committee it was not a priority for the government and could be delayed until the winter.

It was originally supposed to roll out nationwide in May, but the UK has since reverted to a conventional manual approach.

The government now says it plans to have the new app available in the autumn, although at that point it may not have contact-tracing functionality but will simply allow users to report symptoms and order testing.

The Apple/Google platform follows a decentralised model and so is thought to have fewer privacy issues than the original NHSX app, which uses a centralised data model has attracted criticism from some quarters – including the Open Knowledge Foundation – for infringing on people’s civil liberties.

A recent survey of 1,000 people across the UK found that 29% would refuse to use the app, with another 27% uncertain, and more than a third worried that the app would allow the government to collect data on their movements.

The UK isn’t the first country to switch to a decentralised model, with Germany, Italy and Denmark also backtracking on earlier plans for a centralised approach, according to the BBC, which says France is however still pushing ahead with a centralised system.

Contact-tracing smartphone apps use wireless signals such as Bluetooth to exchange a ‘digital handshake’ with another user when they come within a set distance of each other for a particular length of time – 2 metres and 15 minutes in the case of the NHSX app.

The app logs the contact, encrypts it, and notifies the user if they have had close contact with another user who has tested positive – and chosen to update their status on the app – giving them advice to self-isolate.

In the case of the Apple/Google system the process takes place on the users’ phones, which makes the data less likely to be hacked.

“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, “ said Health Secretary Matt Hancock..

“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.”

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