News | Published June 21 2020

UK contact tracing app to adopt new model

The Covid-19 contact tracing app, rolled out on behalf of the NHS in the Isle of Wight some weeks ago, is set to undergo major technical change over the weeks ahead.

This is a major change in the app's planned development cycle, and will look at taking on a "privacy-focused" model based on Apple and Google apps.

This new focus on privacy, however, will mean that scientists have less access to data from which to monitor and measure the spread of the virus.

The change also means delays: the app now may not arrive until as late as autumn, at which point the Covid-19 pandemic may have started to subside in the UK.

It has also been announced that the app rolled out later this year may not involve contact tracing, but instead look more heavily at making it easy to order tests and providing advice on social distancing and self-isolation.

The app is part of the NHS's wider Test and Trace programme, which has seen some success over the past few weeks.

Baroness Dido Harding, who is leading the Test and Trace initiative, says she will only adopt a framework recommended by Apple and Google if she sees it as "fit for purpose".

Systems in the Isle of Wight apparently recognised around 75 per cent of Android handsets, but only four per cent of iPhones - making its usefulness somewhat limited based on this data.

In contrast, the Apple/Google model recognises 99 per cent of devices running on both iOS and Android operating systems, but struggles with multiple devices that are in close proximity to each other - seemingly another damning flaw.

Many other countries - including Denmark, Italy and Germany - have adopted the Apple/Google "decentralised" model to some success, but the real impact of tracing apps will be seen over the weeks and months to come.

At a briefing earlier this week, Mr Hancock explained the issue was to do with how Apple restricted third-party apps' use of Bluetooth.

"Apple software prevents iPhones being used effectively for contact tracing unless you're using Apple's own technology.

"Our app won't work because Apple won't change that system... and their app can't measure distance well enough to a standard that we are satisfied with.

"What matters is what works. Because what works will save lives."

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Authored by

The Parliamentary Review

June 21 2020

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