LONDON – Almost as soon as the coronavirus pandemic prompted a lockdown in the UK, there was talk about a contact tracing app to help monitor the spread of COVID-19. Initially, the country’s government chose to go it alone, developing a product built on a centralized model. This was separate to the framework proposed, then released, by Apple and Google. It stayed the course even as nearby countries Ireland and Germany moved to the approach. Finally, on Thursday, things changed in the UK too.
UK Health Secretary Blames Apple for COVID-19 Contact Tracing App Failure
In the UK government’s daily briefing on Thursday, Health and Social Care Secretary Matthew Hancock seemed to blame Apple for the failure of the UK’s app. He said:
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. Their app can’t measure distance well enough to a standard that we are satisfied with.
Mr. Hancock talked about a model that brought both systems together. Furthermore, in a joint statement seen by The Mac Observer, Baroness Dido Harding, Executive Chair of NHS Test and Trace and Matthew Gould, CEO of NHSX, said:
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. We will also draw on the invaluable insight from all of those who trialled the app on the Isle of Wight – and the brilliant teams who have worked on it to date – to build an app that can form part of the end-to-end NHS Test and Trace service and this insight will be integral to the next phase of development.
Apple initially stayed tight-lipped as the news of the UK shift broke. However, it has now hit back. “We don’t know what they mean by this hybrid model. They haven’t spoken to us about it,” the company told the Times (£).
So What Happened?
The UK did actually begin testing an app before the Apple/Google API was released widely. It is also understood that they continued to work alongside Apple during the development process. (It’s worth reiterating that the tech giants are not building the app themselves, just a framework on which countries and health authorities can build one.) The testing took place on the Isle of Wight. Later, the UK government also began testing an app built using the Apple/Google API. The biggest issue seems to be its own COVID-19 contact tracing was pushed into the background on iOS. This was amongst the technical issues the UK was warned about. During the test, iPhones failed to pick up contacts:
There had also been privacy concerns about a centralized model. Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, told The Mac Observer that the government “ignored our warnings that vulnerable communities may simply avoid an App that could be abused through keeping centralized records.”
Where Next for the NHS COVID-19 Contact Tracing App?
Those on the Isle of Wight have now been asked to delete the original COVID-19 contact tracing app (via BBC News). A new app, using the framework released by Apple and Google, will eventually be released. A minister promised the tool would be available “for winter” earlier this week. However, having consistently promised that a functioning product was on the way, deployment in the UK remains some way off.