The U.K. will use Apple and Google’s jointly developed technology for its coronavirus contact-tracing app because Apple won’t change its system to allow the government’s app to work effectively on iPhones.
“As it stands, our app won’t work, because Apple won’t change the system,” the U.K.’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, said Thursday.
Apple only allows the app to use Bluetooth when the app is open and in use, but in order for the app to be able to track who has passed close to a potentially infected user it needs Bluetooth to remain active even when the app is closed.
“So we’ve agreed to join forces with Google and Apple to bring the best bits of both systems together,” Hancock said at the government’s daily coronavirus press conference. The U.K.’s government app calculates distances between contacts, which the Apple and Google app does less well, Hancock said.
A contact-tracing app uses location data or Bluetooth technology to keep track of contacts between people. If somebody tests positive for coronavirus or reports symptoms, the app will alert that person’s contacts to self-isolate and get tested.
Apple and Google’s decentralized data storage is thought to improve privacy but offers the government less data to study the spread of the virus.
“We will now be taking forward a solution that brings together the work on our app and the Google/Apple solution,” the Department of Health and Social Care said in a statement on Thursday.
Only three U.S. states will adopt Apple and Google’s model, while 16 states won’t use contact-tracing apps at all; 19 said they were considering an app but had not decided; and 11 were unclear, according to a June survey by Business Insider, suggesting a lack of enthusiasm for track-and-trace technology.
Apple AAPL, +0.04% and Alphabet-owned GOOG, -1.04% GOOGL, -1.26% Google’s app framework stores users’ data on their phones, while the U.K.’s app, which had been developed by the technology arm of the country’s health service, would have kept data in a central database.
The U.K. had been testing its app on the Isle of Wight, off its southern coast, since May, and it was expected to roll out across the country in June as part of what ministers called a “world beating” testing and tracing program.
Meanwhile, the government has been manually tracing the contacts of people with the coronavirus, and between June 4 and June 10 it said 40,690 people were contacted by the health service and asked to self-isolate.
The health secretary did not specify when the new app would be ready, saying: “We’re not going to put a date on the time frame. Because I’m absolutely determined that whilst this technology can help, it’s got to be working effectively.”
A Google spokesperson said: “We welcome the announcement from the UK government today.”
“We have developed an Exposure Notification API with Apple based on consultation with public health experts around the world, including in the UK, to ensure that our efforts are useful to authorities as they build their own apps to limit the spread of COVID-19, while ensuring privacy and security are central to the design.”
The NHS was contacted for comment.