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Apple and Google reject NHS Covid-19 app update over location feature

Plans for a major update to the NHS Covid-19 app will not go ahead in England and Wales after it emerged the feature went against privacy rules agreed with Apple and Google.

The idea was for users to upload their historical location check-ins, if they test positive for the virus. The idea would be to automatically warn other patrons who’ve also visited the venue recently and streamline the track and trace process.

The government had planned for the update to go live before April 12, to coincide with the relaxation of Covid restrictions in the UK, which has enabled non-essential businesses and hospitality venues to open up for the first time in 2021.

However, in true UK government style, the update was never possible due to the previous agreement made with the Apple and Google over contact tracing. When deciding to use using the back-end API developed by the two tech titans, the government agreed that it would not collect any location data.

Although the uploads from the users would be voluntary – and the data anonymous – it would still contravene those terms and conditions, which say “a contact tracing app may not use location-based APIs… and may not collect any device information to identify the precise location of users”.

This would explain the absence of the update even while many people around the UK are enjoying their first pub-based pint or haircut in a while. A BBC report says both Google and Apple refused to make the update available. The Department of Health, which is responsible for the app, has declined to comment on the how this had happened.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health did tell the BBC: “The deployment of the functionality of the NHS Covid-19 app to enable users to upload their venue history has been delayed. “This does not impact the functionality of the app and we remain in discussions with our partners to provide beneficial updates to the app which protect the public.”

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