NHSX ‘working on second tracing app using Apple and Google tech’

NHSX is reportedly working on a second contact-tracing app following criticism of the one it launched in the Isle of Wight last week, including its decision to differ from Apple and Google’s solution.

The app is being developed “in parallel” with the currently available version using Apple and Google’s technology in case politicians force switch, the Financial Times reported.

NHSX has faced criticism over its decision to take a different route Apple and Google. Its ‘centralised’ approach has caused concerns among experts relating to privacy.

Under the NHS’s system alerts are sent to users about potential contact with Covid-19 from central database held by the NHS.

Using Bluetooth, the app notes when it has come into contact with other devices and stores than information anonymously until a user consents to send it to the central database.

Whereas Apple and Google’s approach sees alerts sent between devices when potential coronavirus symptoms are reported, which experts argue protects privacy and reduces the risk of misuse of the app for mass surveillance.

A source involved in talks between the NHS and Apple and Google told the Financial Times that discussions between the organisations had intensified, including “exploring how we might change course”. Privacy risks had also caused the organisation to reconsider its stance, it was claimed.

Concerns have also been raised about the current NHSX app being incompatible with Apple devices, as well as draining battery life.

An NHSX spokesperson denied the organisation was working on a second app but instead was “refining” the current one.

“The suggestion we are now abandoning this model is wrong. 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,” they said.

Chief executive Matthew Gould has always maintained the app would be updated and adapted as lessons about it’s use, and the spread of Covid-19, were learned.

Speaking at a hearing of parliament’s joint committee on human rights on Monday he reassured MPs that “just because we’ve started down one route doesn’t mean we’re locked into it”.

Housing, communities and local government secretary Robert Jenrick told Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show that, as far as he was aware, the government wasn’t working on developing a second app.

More on Covid-19 contact tracing apps

The app was launched in the Isle of Wight last week. Initial figures show about 55,000 people have downloaded the app – 38% of the population.

But epidemiologists from Oxford University, who are advising NHSX on the app, have said 60% of the population would need to download and use the app for it to be effective.

Speaking at a briefing before the launch Prof Sir Jonathan Montgomery, chair of the ethics advisory board for the app, said market research had revealed a “great willingness” from the public to use the app.

Gould has previously said NHSX’s decision to develop a ‘centralised’ approach offered “profound benefits” for tracing coronavirus without compromising privacy.

Dr Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security Centre, shares those views. In a blog post published last week he said privacy risks exist “in theory” but that the NHS app doesn’t collect enough data to enable them.

Apple and Google in April announced they would be developing contact-tracing technology that would be interoperable with iOS and Android. The first version of their technology is expected in mid-May.





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