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U.K. Contact-Tracing Virus App Roll-Out Delayed by Bureaucracy

Giles Turner and Kitty Donaldson

(Bloomberg) --

Britain’s mobile phone app for tracking coronavirus infections has been delayed by bureaucracy and the addition of more symptoms to monitor, according to a person familiar with the matter -- who said they expected the government to abandon it in favor of the model backed by Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc.’s Google.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged Wednesday that the U.K. would have a tracking-and-tracing system -- essential to lifting the current lockdown -- in place by June 1. But he emphasized recruiting 25,000 workers to trace potential cases, rather than using the app that was due in the middle of May.

The app is being developed by VMware Inc. and Zuhlke Engineering Ltd at a cost of 4.7 million pounds ($5.8 million). There has been controversy about the U.K.’s decision to reject the structure backed by Apple and Google, a move that has been criticized by privacy campaigners.

The U.K. has opted for a “centralized” model, where people who test positive for coronavirus upload all their recent contacts to a database, and those people are then contacted and warned.

Apple Inc. and Google released their Covid-19 exposure-notification tools on Wednesday. Some governments have criticized the “decentralized” system because it doesn’t let authorities store data on who has the virus and track where it is spreading. Instead, it just notifies individuals if they have been exposed.

But one person involved in the U.K. app’s development suggested that after initially using its own model, the U.K. would end up using Apple and Google’s software tool because it would be more battery-efficient and better at alerting users to nearby positive cases.

Development of the app began in March, commissioned by Matthew Gould, head of NHSX, the digital arm of the sprawling state-run health service. Since then, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and his officials, digital oversight officials at the Cabinet Office and security specialists at the National Cyber Security Centre have all had a say in its development. The growing number of stakeholders led to difficulties over deciding how to tackle various problems, two people said, who asked not to be named discussing confidential matters.

After an initial trial on the Isle of Wight, a small island off the south coast of England, the app’s national launch should have gone ahead by now, but Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told Sky News on Wednesday that June was a more likely date. The new timetable came as the nation’s cybersecurity center said Tuesday the app contains flaws that could leave it vulnerable to attack, including a lack of encryption in the test app.

The app will flag to users if they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive to Covid-19. Users can also opt to record their symptoms. However, the U.K. has been increasing the number of symptoms that should lead to a positive test. On Monday the loss of taste and smell was added as an official symptom.

Because the app is health-related, changes to it require an extensive authentication process before it is approved for Apple and Google’s app stores, leading to further delays, one person said.

On Tuesday John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, told Sky News a “well-functioning track and trace” system needed to be “embedded and working well” before schools could re-open. Johnson’s spokesman James Slack said volunteers may be able to start work before June 1, although that is unlikely to allay union fears.

Teachers’ unions are in a battle with government over what safety conditions should be met before they return to work. While ministers had urged primary schools to return by June 1, they appeared to water down the instructions on Wednesday, with Buckland telling BBC radio the date is conditional on tests being met. The large numbers of children unable to go to school means the restarting of the economy is being held back. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak warned Tuesday of a “severe recession the likes of which we haven’t seen.”

The Department for Health and Social Care said in a statement the app would be available “soon,” adding, “we are working at pace to develop our test and trace service, which will significantly improve our ability to track the virus and stop the spread,” a spokesperson said.

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