The government take a huge U-turn after it had been saying for months that it would not be changing the app’s model
The UK is abandoning its existing NHS contact-tracing app in order to switch to new technology being provided by both Google and Apple.
The UK government has confirmed the major U-turn on Thursday, after having insisted repeatedly that its own centralised contact-tracing model was more effective than the applications proposed by the technology giants.
Baroness Dido Harding, who is in charge of the government’s test and trace programme, as well as Matthew Gould, the chief executive of NHSX, have said that the decision was made after a series of “rigorous field testing”.
This comes after one in three NHS hospital trusts in the UK have recorded no coronavirus-related fatalities for a week, new research shows.
The testing had shown that the NHS app identified 75% of contacts made from mobile devices running the Android operating system, but only 4% of those using iOS, the operating system used on Apple products, compared to the 99% of contacts made when using the framework from Google and Apple.
Google and Apple have collaborated on the framework to allow both Android and Apple mobile devices to use Bluetooth as a background application, and to then register when they come into close proximity with another mobile phone.
The collaboration between these to companies has required health authorities’ apps to use a decentralised model for storing data, keeping the list of contacts on the individual’s device, rather than uploading it to a shared central authority, this was done to protect the privacy of users.
The previous NHS app had managed to improve on this issue, according to Baroness Harding and Mr Gould, who said that their innovations would be shared with hugely successful technology companies that have taken over the project.
They said: “As part of a collaborative approach we have agreed to share our own innovative work on estimating distance between app users with Google and Apple, work that we hope will benefit others, while using their solution to address some of the specific technical challenges identified through our rigorous testing.”
Despite the original app being initially promised for mid-May, a health minister has now said that the new NHS contact-tracing app will not be ready before the winter.
Lord Bethell has confirmed that the government has still planned to introduce the contact-tracing app in the UK, referring to it as “a really important option for the future”.
The app has previously been the subject of a trial that took place on the Isle of Wight, where the Department of Health said it had been downloaded by 54,000 people.
Lord Bethell said that this trial had been a success, but admitted that one principal lesson it took away from the trial, was that a greater emphasis needed was to be placed on the manual act of contact tracing.
“It was a reminder that you can’t take a totally technical answer to the problem,” he said.