Apple and Google labelled ‘disgraceful’ over Government app U-turn

The head of England's largest hospital trust has said it is "disgraceful" that Apple and Google will not "share platforms" with the Government on a contact-tracing app.

Dr David Rosser, the chief executive of University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust suggested the Government should not be blamed for the U-turn and said the tech giants should be "ashamed of themselves".

On Thursday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the Government was abandoning plans to develop its own NHSX app and would instead look to software created by Apple and Google to build it.

The UK had been an outlier in not using the Apple/Google model, with a number of other nations, including Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the Republic of Ireland, all using the software built by the tech giants.

Mr Hancock said developers had been working on both the NHSX app and the design offered by Apple and Google since May, but the NHSX app had hit a "technical barrier" during testing on the Isle of Wight.

He said the NHSX app could not be used effectively for contact tracing on an iPhone without using Apple's technology.

The move to use Apple and Google's software to build the app was welcomed by groups such as Amnesty International and cybersecurity experts, who said it would improve user privacy.

But when asked about the Government's decision, Dr Rosser said: "My understanding, and I deal quite a lot in the digital health space, my understanding of the fundamental reason the app won't work is the big tech companies won't share platforms.

"I think that's a pretty disgraceful position to be honest.

"My understanding is you can get it (the NHS app) to work on an Apple platform or an Android platform.

"But because those two big companies won't work together, you can't look at anything that will work across those platforms.

"Frankly I find it slightly difficult to blame the Government for that."

He added: "I think the tech companies should be pretty profoundly ashamed of themselves, is my personal view on that."

Apple and Google's software, which and was made publicly available last month, allows apps created by public health authorities to work more accurately across both Android phones and iPhone handsets.

The companies said at the time they had come together to build their software in order to respond to challenges around interoperability, battery life and privacy in contact-tracing apps.

It is built on what is known as a "decentralised" model, where contact matching is done on a user's smartphone rather than on a central server.

In contrast, the Government's NHSX app was built on a "centralised" principle, with contact-matching data leaving user devices to be processed on a server run by the NHS, which raised privacy concerns.

The Government's initial approach also did not have the guarantee of success across different devices, with compatibility issues with some phones and concerns over the accuracy of Bluetooth as a measuring reported throughout testing.

When acknowledging the technical issues in the Isle of Wight trial, the Government revealed their app was highly inaccurate when used on iPhones, only identifying around 4% of contacts.