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Apple wasn’t told UK was developing a ‘hybrid’ COVID-19 app with its tech

Apple also questioned claims about its system's distance calculations

Britain’s contact-tracing shambles suffered another setback today when Apple revealed it didn’t know the country was developing an app with its tech.

In an embarrassing U-turn, the UK government announced yesterday that it was dumping its home-grown app for one based on Apple and Google’s decentralized model. Health Secretary Matt Hancock claimed the transition would be simple, as the country had “backed both horses” by testing the two systems before scrapping its in-house app.

Hancock said that the National Health Service (NHS) would now work to combine its proximity-detection technology with the Apple-Google system.

“We’ve agreed to join forces with Google and Apple, to bring the best bits of both systems together,” he said.

[Read: Google and Apple launch COVID-19 contact-tracing tech]

But his claim evidently came as a surprise to Apple.

“We don’t know what they mean by this hybrid model. They haven’t spoken to us about it,” a source at Apple told The London Times.

Growing contact-tracing problems

Hancock admitted that both the government’s app and the Apple-Google system had weaknesses — but blamed both their shortcomings on Apple.

“We found that our app works well on Android devices but Apple software prevents iPhones being used effectively for contact-tracing unless you are using Apple’s own technology,” he said. “Their app can’t measure distance well enough to a standard that we are satisfied with.”

However, Apple questioned his claim that its system had weaker distance calculations.

“It is difficult to understand what these claims are as they haven’t spoken to us,” Apple told The London Times. “But the app has been downloaded by six million in 24 hours in Germany, the Italians have had it going since Monday, the Dutch government and Irish government have it, and there has been no issue about proximity detection.”

The dispute with Apple is the latest hitch in the government’s contact-tracing plans, which have been beset by delays, technical issues, and privacy concerns.

In May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had pledged to have a “world-beating” contact-tracing in place by June 1, but officials now say that the system won’t be in place before the fall. And even then, they admit the tech might not be good enough for accurate contact-tracing.

Published June 19, 2020 — 17:13 UTC

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