The UK is to adopt Google and Apple’s technology for its coronavirus contact-tracing app after several months of trying to pursue its own course.
The UK has avoided basing its contact-tracing app on the tech giants’ software, because it wanted to pursue a more “centralized” approach that gave it greater access to people’s data.
However, sources highlighted a number of technical issues that faced the UK app, such as getting its underlying Bluetooth mechanism working properly.
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The UK will abandon its own approach for its coronavirus contact-tracing app, and instead work with technology on offer from Apple and Google, the government said on Thursday.
The move marks a u-turn from the UK, which began developing its contact-tracing app in March but has continually delayed a full rollout amid technical problems.
The government said on Thursday that it had encountered problems both with its own contact-tracing app, as well as with the Google-Apple approach.
The government’s app, like many other contact-tracing apps, relies on phones using Bluetooth to send and receive signals to each other in the background. If a user tells the app they are experiencing coronavirus symptoms, that information goes to a centralized NHS server which then determines whether to issue a warning alert to any phones they may have been close to over the prior two weeks.
One technical challenge experienced by the government was whether its app could actually “speak” to other phones via Bluetooth if they were running particular operating systems. It appears this is the primary reason why the government is abandoning its app.
While the Google-Apple approach would get around this problem, it’s still not perfect. The government says the underlying tech does not estimate distance between phones “in the way required.”
However, the government wants to work collaboratively with Google and Apple on an app that does work as required.
It isn’t clear when an updated app may roll out, although ministers this week said the app may be more widely available by winter 2020.
The UK was one of the handful of European countries including France and Germany to reject the Google-Apple API when it was first announced. Germany also initially rejected it quickly reversed its position, and its Google-Apple API-backed app went live this week. France forged ahead and released its own app without the Google-Apple API on June 2.
Sources with knowledge of the app’s development told Business Insider in April that it was widely expected the UK government would change approach. One said at the time: “Everyone expects the [Department of Health] to rewrite their app to use the API, and claim victory.”
One simply commented today: “Not surprised.”
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