The U.K. has decided to build its coronavirus contact-tracing app on top of technology developed by Apple and Google, marking a major U-turn for the nation.
First reported by the BBC, the news was confirmed by the U.K. Health Minister Matt Hancock later on Thursday.
“We’ve agreed to join forces with Google and Apple, to bring the best bits of both systems together,” said Hancock at the daily Downing Street briefing in London.
The reason for the U-turn relates to a technical barrier, Hancock admitted.
“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.
The U.K.’s NHSX, the innovation arm of the National Health Service, initially set out to build its own app without the help of the U.S. tech giants.
However, soon after the U.K. began developing its app, Google and Apple announced their own product. Since the announcement, the U.K. has been working on two versions of the app, Hancock said.
“As it stands, our app won’t work because Apple won’t change their system,” Hancock said. “But it can measure distance, and their app can’t measure distance well enough to a standard that we are satisfied with.”
The U.K. now wants to combine the NHSX algorithm, and the work that it’s done on distance calculations with Apple and Google’s work, to deliver a new solution, according to Hancock.
Contact-tracing apps log when two people have been in close proximity to one another for an extended period of time. If someone contracts the virus then an alert will be sent to people they’ve been in close proximity to.
Apple and Google’s platform is designed to offer citizens more privacy but it doesn’t give epidemiologists access to as much data.
Germany, Italy and Denmark have also switched from a so-called “centralized” approach that sees data processed on a state-controlled server to Apple and Google’s “dencentralized” approach, where data is processed on the handset itself, thereby limiting privacy intrusions.
The U.K. government said that the NHSX’s contact-tracing app was a key part of lifting the country’s lockdown and that it would help reduce the chance of a second wave of the coronavirus.