Britain`s COVID-19 App: The Game Changer That Wasn`t
But by the end of May, government officials were downplaying the app. In an interview with Sky News, Hancock called the app "helpful" but said traditional contact tracing needed to be rolled out first. Quoting another official, he said, "It puts the cherry on the cake but isn`t the cake."
Behind the scenes, NHSX testers were discovering serious technical problems.
The agency had opted to develop an app that collected and stored data on central servers that could be used by health authorities and epidemiologists to study the disease. It relied on a technology called Bluetooth to determine who recently had been near someone displaying symptoms and for how long.
NHSX testers were finding that while the app could detect three-quarters of nearby smartphones using Google`s Android operating system, it sometimes could only identify four percent of Apple iPhones, according to government officials. The problem was that, on Apple devices, the app often couldn`t utilize Bluetooth because of a design choice by Apple to preserve user privacy and prolong battery life.
The issue was no secret. Apple and Google had jointly announced in April that they would release a toolkit to better enable Bluetooth on contact-tracing apps. But to protect user privacy, it would only work on apps that stored data on phones, not central servers. The NHSX app didn`t work that way.
The government insisted it had developed a successful work-around to overcome the Apple issue. But not everyone was convinced. The advocacy group Privacy International, which had tested the app in early May, "found it wasn`t working properly on iPhones," Gus Hosein, the group`s executive director, told Reuters. But because of the government`s assurances, he said, "We just assumed we were doing something wrong."
Other countries, including Germany, decided they would change their apps to work with the Apple-Google toolkit. That raised another problem with the UK app — it likely wouldn`t be compatible with many other contact-tracing apps so British travellers wouldn`t be notified if they were exposed to the virus.
On June 18, weeks after the UK app was supposed to be rolled out, government officials announced a dramatic U-turn — they would abandon the app being tested on the Isle of Wight and try to create one that worked with the Apple- Google technology. Work had already begun on it and they had learned lessons from the test, they said.