Tech

Coronavirus app U-turn? Britain's NHS pays Swiss firm to investigate Apple and Google model

Key Points
  • NHSX, the digital innovation arm of the National Health Service (NHS), has paid £3.8 million to a Swiss firm to investigate Apple and Google's contact-tracing technology. 
  • It suggests that a U-turn could be coming. 
  • The story was first reported by The Financial Times. 
An NHS support sign is shown through the crown logo on the gates to Ascot Racecourse on April 08, 2020 in Ascot, England.
Richard Heathcote | Getty Images

Britain's National Health Service (NHS) is considering a major U-turn on its new coronavirus contract-tracing app, just days after launching it on the Isle of Wight amid concerns that it doesn't work as it's intended to. 

Contact-tracing apps are a way for governments to monitor the spread of coronavirus in a population. Around the world, states are using them to alert people when they have been in close contact with an infected person.

Countries are having to choose whether to build "centralized" contact-tracing apps, where data is stored on a government server, or "decentralized" apps, where data is processed on the handset itself. The initial version of the NHS app is based on a centralized framework, so the data can be kept on an NHS database. The centralized approach allows researchers to access the data and NHSX to tweak the app over time as necessary. 

However, the NHS's digital innovation arm, NHSX, has awarded a £3.8 million contract to Zuhlke Engineering, a Switzerland-headquartered IT firm with an office in London, to "investigate" switching the app onto the global standard proposed by Apple and Google.

In the contract, it states that Zuhlke Engineering should "investigate the complexity, performance and feasibility of implementing native Apple and Google contact tracing APIs (application programming interfaces) within the existing proximity mobile application and platform." The contract started on May 5 and runs until November 10.

The story was first reported by The Financial Times newspaper.

"Both Zuhlke and Pivotal have been working on the project with NHSX to date, and both have just renewed contracts for the next phase," an NHSX spokesperson told CNBC.

"The suggestion this means we are moving away from the centralized model is without foundation. We've been working with Apple and Google throughout the app's development and it's quite right and normal to continue to refine the app."

Will the app work?

Imi Tew

The NHS smartphone app ⁠— built by Zuhlke in partnership with California-based firm Pivotal ⁠— has been rolled out on the Isle of Wight this week for testing, with the view to launch it nationwide by mid-May. It uses Bluetooth signals to track interactions with other people's phones and create a log of app users who have been in proximity to one another. It specifically records when people are within two meters of each other for more than 15 minutes.

When someone develops a fever, a cough, or both, they can inform the app, which will then alert recent contacts and advise them that they may be at risk of infection. 

But tech experts doubt the app will work as intended because iOS and Android devices prohibit third-party apps from continuously using Bluetooth for battery-life reasons. Meanwhile, privacy advocates have raised concerns about storing so much personal information in one place.

Questions have also been raised about whether it will work alongside other countries' contact-tracing apps that are built on Apple and Google's framework.

Test, Track and Trace

The app — designed to work alongside 18,000 human contact tracers and a significant testing regime — is a key part of the U.K. government's lockdown exit strategy, which has been branded: "Test, Track and Trace." 

"By downloading the app, you're protecting your own health, you're protecting the health of your loved ones and the health of your community," said U.K. Health Minister Matt Hancock on Monday. 

The latest figures show that more than 3.75 million people have been infected with the virus around the world, and 263,000 have died. The U.S. has the most cases (1,228,603), followed by Spain (220,325), Italy (214,457), the U.K.(202,356), and France (174,224), according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.K. isn't the only country build a centralized app to try and slow the spread of coronavirus: Australia and France have also shunned the Apple and Google framework. Germany, however, changed its mind after realizing a centralized app would have have limitations. 

"Take-up in countries using their system (Apple and Google's) is likely to be much higher, which explains why most countries are choosing to use it," Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, which wants to preserve people's rights in the digital age, told CNBC. "The main barrier for the U.K. now is that they would need to base reports on tests rather than self-reporting."

Zuhlke did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.