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Google and Apple block NHS COVID-19 app update over privacy issues

The NHS COVID-19 logo on a blue yellow and green background

Sky News has reported that the NHS COVID-19 app has seen an update delayed by Google and Apple over privacy issues. The update would have allowed users to upload a list of the venues they had checked into if they tested positive for COVID-19 but this form of location tracking is prohibited by the two firms who worked together to build the exposure notification system.

Following the delay to the update, the Department for Health and Social Care, which runs the app, said:

“This does not impact the functionality of the app and we remain in discussions with our partners to provide beneficial updates to the app which protect the public.

As venues begin to open up we encourage everyone who can to use the enhanced venue check-in process, which includes advising users to book a test if they attend venues where multiple people have tested positive.”

The NHS COVID-19 app in question is for use by people in England and Wales – other areas of the UK use their own contact tracing apps but are still compatible with the version used in England and Wales. The NHS COVID-19 app was plagued by setbacks and didn’t actually launch until mid-September. Initially, the government was trying to build an app with a centralised model which would have given it more control over the app's functions but it faced several issues particularly on iOS.

Using the decentralised model, the app can talk to coronavirus apps from other countries but the developers have to work within the bounds set out by Google and Apple that require certain levels of privacy requirements to be met.

The ability to check in with QR codes has been available on the app since its launch but users would only be notified if local authorities flagged a hotspot to the database to alert users. According to the BBC, this feature was rarely used because local authorities were confused about what they were supposed to do. Had today’s update gone through, users may have seen more notifications to self-isolate causing a reduction in the spread of the disease.

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