When the United Kingdom released its coronavirus app in early May on the Isle of Wight, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said people testing the digital tracing tool were “at the forefront of helping Britain get back on her feet.”
What a difference almost two months makes.
On Thursday, London announced it had postponed the countrywide launch of its coronavirus app so that it could be overhauled to use technology provided by Google and Apple. The U-turn follows more than two months of technical glitches, questions about the apps’ effectiveness, and doubts over whether people would even download it in the first place.
“We have agreed to share our own innovative work on estimating distance between app users with Google and Apple,” Dido Harding, who chairs the U.K. government’s test and trace program, and Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX, the innovation unit of the country’s health service, said in a statement. “Our ambition is to develop an app which will enable anyone with a smartphone to engage with every aspect of the NHS Test and Trace service.”
Harding and Gould did not give a date for when the country’s revamped app would be released, though officials said the fall would be the most likely time frame.
The decision represents a blow for Britain’s efforts to show that it is at the forefront of tackling the global pandemic.
Unlike other countries like Germany, and many U.S. states, London had decided initially not to work with Google and Apple, which would only allow access to their mobile phone technology to government apps that stored sensitive data on people’s mobile devices.
British officials, along with their counterparts in France, had balked at the American tech giants’ demands that data should remain decentralized. They said it was preferable to collect people’s information into one central server so that researchers could better analyze the spread of the disease. (Paris released its app in early June, though it has so far only been downloaded by a fraction of the country’s population.)
But now, amid ongoing technical problems, which have resulted in months of delays before the British app can be released nationwide, the U.K. has decided to fall in line with other countries and work with Google and Apple directly on its coronavirus digital tracing tool.
Coronavirus apps use a device’s bluetooth mobile technology to determine if someone has been in close contact with another person infected with the virus, so that people can be informed if they need to isolate themselves.
British officials acknowledged that the country’s standalone app had not been accurate in identifying if people had been in contact with someone who had the coronavirus.
On devices using Google’s Android operating system, for instance, the U.K. digital tool was 75 percent effective. But on Apple devices, that figure fell to a mere 4 percent. Coronavirus apps that relied on technology provided by the tech giants were accurate in 99 percent of instances, U.K. officials noted.
Despite the setback, London may not be as far behind others in using smartphone apps to identify who has been infected with COVID-19.
Other countries that have released their own apps have faced problems with not enough people downloading the digital tracing tools. Norway, for instance, paused its own app this week after only 14 percent of the population had signed up.
Privacy campaigners also have warned against government surveillance by the back door if officials are allowed to use people’s sensitive health data for purposes other than to combat COVID-19.
Security experts have similarly raised questions about using bluetooth to identify who has been in touch with those infected by the coronavirus.
For now, the U.K. plans to rely on people to conduct so-called contact tracing, or calling those infected with the virus to determine whom they have been in contact with.
Developers behind Italy’s app said it is highly likely that these tools would lead to both false positives and negatives because of the inaccuracy of the mobile device technology. British officials also said that Google and Apple’s solution is still not accurate enough to tell who has been in proximity with someone suffering from the virus, though countries like Germany, Spain and Ireland are still using their technology for their national apps.
For now, the U.K. plans to rely on people to conduct so-called contact tracing, or calling those infected with the virus to determine whom they have been in contact with. That analogue system has had its own difficulties, with many people who had been contacted either not answering the tracers’ calls or declining to say with whom they had been in contact.
Currently, the U.K. has the third highest global death toll, at 42,200 people, behind the U.S. and Brazil, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.