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Waiting for Apple and Google would 'slow down' UK contact-tracing app, government says

The UK government says its own app for tracking the spread of coronavirus could be ready within two to three weeks.


The UK's app could be available in two weeks.

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The UK on Tuesday explained why it won't be adopting Apple and Google's contact-tracing system for fighting the spread of the coronavirus, opting instead to use its own. In a House of Commons select committee session, Matthew Gould, CEO of NHSX, the UK health system's innovation arm, said a big factor behind the decision is timing.

Contact-tracing apps are being widely hailed as the next technological fix for preventing the spread of COVID-19, but not everyone agrees how the tech should work. The apps, which sit on someone's phones and keep track via Bluetooth of the people they've come into contact with, will let people know when they should self-isolate if they've been in close proximity to someone suspected to have the coronavirus

Apple and Google are working together to develop a platform that will underpin some of these apps. Some countries have decided to use this option, but others are going their own way. Germany, for example, pivoted this weekend to using Apple and Google's offering, while France is asking Apple to relax its privacy restrictions to allow its homegrown app to work on iPhones.

The UK is also rejecting Apple and Google's platform in favor of its own contact-tracing app, which has been in the works since early March, several weeks before the country went into lockdown on March 23. The country expects to start testing the app locally within the next couple of weeks, said Gould. He added that he expects it to be "technically ready" for large-scale deployment in two to three weeks, but that it would only be rolled out as part of a wider strategy that also includes more testing and manual contact tracing.

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There are several reasons the NHS isn't using Apple and Google's system, one of which is the timescale. Gould said that his team was working closely with the two companies, but that their joint platform would be released in two stages, which would take too long. Apple CEO Tim Cook reportedly said last week that the API would be released on Tuesday, but Gould believes the companies are "some way" from the second stage of their process. "Waiting for them would slow us down quite considerably," he said.

Representatives for Apple and Google didn't respond to requests for comment.

Another reason the UK is keen to go its own way is that it doesn't view the fully decentralized system being advocated by Apple and Google as the best way to control the epidemic. The benefit of decentralized contact tracing is that it offers the highest level of privacy protections -- by working device-to-device, people's health data is never uploaded to a central repository.

But as well as contacting people to warn them that they may have come into contact with someone who may have the coronavirus, the UK wants to be able to follow up with them to tell them if that person later tests negative. This will mean they no longer have to self-isolate unnecessarily. A fully decentralized device-to-device system wouldn't allow them to send out updates to people about the level of risk.

The UK's approach has attracted criticism from privacy advocates, who would prefer the country to prioritize privacy over this advanced level of functionality. Gould defended the privacy credentials of the NHS system, saying that NHSX was working closely with the Information Commissioner's Office, the country's data protection watchdog, to make sure it met all standards. There will be repeated points of consent whenever the app is updated and all data will be anonymized.

"The only time people will need to tell us who they are is when they order a test," said Gould. "I do believe that what we've done is respectful of peoples privacy." He added that it is the UK's intention to fully disable the app and withdraw it from app marketplaces when the country's coronavirus epidemic is over.

During the session Gould wasn't asked about and didn't address another problem that would arise from not opting for Apple and Google's system. Because the app will be taking data acquired over Bluetooth off the device for processing, it must run constantly in the foreground to work, potentially causing battery drain and preventing people from using their phones for other purposes.

It's one of several outstanding issues the NHS will have to tackle as it engages in what Gould acknowledged will be "an enormous comms effort" to persuade at least 60% of the population to download and use the app.