Coronavirus: UK government drops its contact-tracing app and moves to Google-Apple model

Some feared centralised virus tracking data system would encroach on privacy rights

epa07961997 British Prime Minister Boris Johnson departs 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, 31 October 2019. Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are set to unofficially kick off their general election campaigns.  EPA/ANDY RAIN
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The British government has decided to abandon its coronavirus contact-tracing app and switch to technology provided by Apple and Google.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government was due to start introducing its own app at the start of July but the plans were shelved when an initial testing phase revealed major problems.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced the decision at the UK government's daily coronavirus briefing.

"We have agreed to join forces with Google and Apple to bring the best bits of both systems," Mr Hancock said.

He said the UK's technology worked well with Google's Android system but was not accurate enough in recording distances between people with Apple's.

"Coming together in this way will bring together some of the best minds to find a solution to this global challenge and help to save lives," Mr Hancock said.

For some time, the government insisted that its centralised model was more effective than an app put forward by Apple and Google.

Officials said holding centralised data on contacts would give them valuable information about how Covid-19 was spreading.

But many feared that such a system would lead to the government encroaching on their right to privacy.

To ease those concerns, the Google-Apple app uses a decentralised model of data storage, keeping it on people’s mobile phones instead of moving it to a central authority.

The government’s app was tested on the Isle of Wight by about 54,000 people.

Mr Johnson had called the government's app a "world-beating" pillar of the UK response to the pandemic.

On Wednesday, the official responsible for the app said it might not be ready until the winter and that it was not the priority at the moment.

The Minister for Innovation at the Department of Health and Social Care, Lord Bethell, said the government still intended to introduce a contact-tracing app as an option for the future.