The UK’s coronavirus contact tracing app is in the process of being piloted on the Isle of Wight, but there are signs that the government’s confidence in its homegrown digital solution is wavering. The British government has contracted Swiss company Zuhlke Engineering to test out how easily it could integrate Apple and Google’s decentralised contact tracing framework.
The six-month £3.9m contract is the meatiest awarded for the tracing app so far, potentially indicating how seriously the government is considering a potential shift away from its centralised approach. The value is likely to reflect the ‘two week technical spike’ in which time the team must “investigate the complexity, performance and feasibility of implementing native Apple and Google contact tracing APIs within the existing proximity mobile application and platform” (as per the contract). However, it likely also reflects that the contract represents the provision of a managed service, rather than a one-off project.
Before this point, according to documents made public by the UK government, it awarded Zuhlke just over £2 million for work on the app. Pivotal, a subsidiary of American software giant VMWare, is the other company tasked with developing the app. It’s scored two tracing app contracts worth £1.8m to date. Besides these two, the UK government has awarded smaller one-off contracts to cyber security firm NCC and Nine23, a secure technology solutions provider.
This decision to test out the Google-Apple model arrives amidst increasing backlash against the UK’s choice to select a centralised design for its contact tracing app. Aside from myriad privacy concerns and fears over who might be able to access the centralised data, there’s a very basic concern over whether the app will actually work. Google and Apple have said that only decentralised apps will be able to run continuously on their handsets – spelling trouble for other approaches.
European countries such as Switzerland, Austria, Estonia, Czech Republic, Italy and Germany have chosen to develop decentralised app architecture that will run seamlessly in the background on both Android and Apple phones. Germany pivoted from a centralised to decentralised approach due to a lack of cooperation on the part of the tech giants – something that the Financial Times reported has impacted the NHSX team’s confidence. France, like the UK, remains committed to a centralised app at present, despite getting increasingly frustrated by Apple and Google’s refusal to adapt their systems.
NHSX CEO Matthew Gould has said previously that his team is working “phenomenally closely” with Apple and Google. Nevertheless, there is increasing speculation that the UK’s app is unlikely to work as planned. Australia, which like the UK claimed to have found a workaround allowing the app to function, was forced to concede yesterday that the app doesn’t work very well on iPhones. The head of the tracing app project said that the country would likely be one of the first to incorporate the Google-Apple framework instead.
This prompted speculation that the UK might follow suit. Publicly however, the UK remains steadfastly committed to a centralised approach: “The suggestion we are moving away from a centralised model is without foundation,” a spokesperson for NHSX said in a statement. “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.”