In major U-turn, the UK will now reportedly use Apple and Google's platform for its coronavirus tracing app

A woman in a protective face mask walks through Brixton Market in South London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Victoria Jones | PA Images via Getty Images

The U.K. has reportedly 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 is expected to be confirmed by the U.K. government later on Thursday. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care wasn’t immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

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, the effort has been mired by setbacks and technical glitches, meaning it has only been rolled out to residents on the Isle of Wight, an island on the south coast of England where less than 1% of the U.K. population lives.

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.

Development on the U.K. app started in March. Within weeks, however, Apple and Google announced that they were teaming up to develop technology that would help smartphones to make Bluetooth “handshakes” with other smartphones in the background, meaning the contact-tracing app didn’t have to be open at all times. 

There was one caveat: They said they would only allow these background handshakes to occur on “decentralized” apps. 

Heavily delayed

The U.K. started piloting a centralized contact-tracing app on the Isle of Wight, home to 142,000 of the U.K.’s 66 million population, on May 7. 

It was aiming to have it up and running nationwide by mid-May, but that date has now slipped to winter.

“We are seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn’t the priority for us at the moment,” said Lord James Bethell, the minister for innovation at the Department of Health and Social Care, in response to a question about the app on Wednesday. 

Within days of the pilot going live, it emerged that the U.K. was contemplating a move to Apple and Google’s framework and it has been trialing both versions side-by-side for several weeks now. 

Former Apple executive Simon Thompson has been put in control of the heavily-delayed project, while NHSX CEO Matthew Gould is stepping aside, according to a separate BBC report on Wednesday. 


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