The UK government has announced it will now adopt the Apple and Google-made coronavirus contact tracing API, in a major policy U-turn.
After months of prioritising a bespoke solution, the government has admitted that its plans to launch an app would not have been effective due to restrictions Apple places third-party developers for the iOS operating system.
In the daily Downing Street briefing, health secretary Matt Hancock effectively blamed Apple for not opening up its platform to allow the government’s app to work unhindered.
“We found that our app works well on Android devices, but Apple software prevents iPhones being used effectively for contact-tracing unless you’re using Apple’s own technology,” he said during the press conference. “We’ve agreed to join forces with Google and Apple, to bring the best bits of both systems together.”
Hancock’s explanation was that the app developed for NHSX was able to effectively measure the distance smartphones are from each other, but was hindered by Apple’s refusal to open up its platform. He says Apple and Google’s API doesn’t measure distance as well, so he wants to combine the NHS app’s distance measuring algorithm with the back-end tech built by the US tech giants.
We’ve seen no evidence thus far that the government-made tech is more effective at measuring distance between smartphone users than the Apple/Google API. It’s been said that this is more of a face-saving exercise for the government with the writing thought to have been on the wall for the bespoke app for quite some time, following testing on the Isle of Wight.
The U-turn is a boost for privacy advocates who had raised concerns about the original app placing patient data on a centralised server that would have allowed information to be cross-referenced with other data points.
Google and Apple’s API keeps data decentralised, meaning its anonymised and never leaves the user’s device. On the other side of the coin, this system prevents the data being used by medical experts to assist with new findings, which could restrict research into how the virus spreads.
The new app, which will be built on top of Apple and Google’s API, is unlikely to launch until the autumn at the earliest. The health secretary would not be drawn on a time scale during questions from the media today.