UK ditches COVID-19 app model to use Google-Apple system

UK

LONDON (Reuters) – The British government will switch to Apple and Google technology for its test-and-trace app, ditching its current system in a U-turn for the troubled programme, the BBC reported on Thursday.

The test-and-trace programme is seen as a key measure to reopen the country, but has also been dogged by criticism after the nationwide roll-out of a National Health Service (NHS)-developed smartphone app slipped from the last month towards the end of the year.

Apple and Google have been in talks with Britain about the technology, which uses a decentralised model. The firms have barred authorities using their technology from collecting GPS location data or requiring users to enter personal data.

The head of the UK’s programme said last month a centralised app of the kind Britain had been developing can potentially give more insight into outbreaks of COVID-19, but offers less privacy than decentralised rivals.

Apple and Google’s model has attracted the interest of over 20 countries, though some of the restrictions they have imposed have frustrated governments as the world’s top two smartphone makers undercut the technology’s usefulness by prioritising user privacy.

The current UK app is being tested on the Isle of Wight, off the southern coast of England.

Ministers have admitted to technical issues with the app, which meant that it was not ready for use in time for the launch of England’s test and trace system on May 28.

Britain’s testing co-ordinator has said the tracing system and the app are “distinct but complementary”, and it is advantageous to introduce one before the other.

James Bethell, a junior health minister, on Wednesday said, with regards to the app, that the government wished to “get something going for the winter”, but that it was not a priority.

He said that the pilot had gone “very well indeed”.

Britain’s adoption of this ‘decentralised’ approach would be in line with a growing number of European countries, including Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Austria.

France, meanwhile, has launched an app that stores data on a central server – an approach which is not supported by Apple on privacy grounds, works poorly on iPhones and could hinder attempts to link it to other apps in Europe.

Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Kate Holton/Guy Faulconbridge

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