A proposed update to the NHS Covid-19 app has been delayed after the Government wanted to introduce a feature which breached privacy guidelines.
The app is based on a blueprint developed by Apple and Google which was made widely available last year.
Rolled out to more than half of smartphone owners in England and Wales, the app was due an update on April 8 which would have asked users to upload the location history to the app if they test positive for the coronavirus.
Currently, the app asks people to check in using QR codes at pubs, gyms, restaurants etc but the information is not distributed and kept confidential.
The proposed update by the Department of Health and Social Care would have pooled the location data and given the health officials access to it.
This level of location data is something Apple and Google have been steadfastly against since the birth of contact tracing apps at the start of last year.
The software for England and Wales was due to receive an update from April 8 which would use the QR code check in details to track where a positive person has been. This was banned by Apple and Google for for breaching privacy rules
At the moment, if a venue is identified as a potential virus hotspot by health experts, the information is then sent to every single device which has the app.
Every device with the app on regularly connects to the software and automatically cross-references to see if it has been at any of the locations.
If it has, an exposure notification will be sent to the phone, asking the user to self-isolate. The same premise and method is used to anonymously spot when a person has been exposed to an infected individual.
The proposed update was planned to further automate the process and ask users to give their permission to upload their venue history.
If this was approved, the place where every person checked in and visited would have been made available to health officials.
The virus-fighting benefits of this are clear, allowing for enhanced contact-tracing, but the compromise on user privacy was too much for Apple and Google.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the location update would be done in a ‘privacy-protecting’ way and allow venue alerts to be generated more quickly, improving the ability to identify where outbreaks are occurring.
Apple and Google’s rules explicitly state that their joint Exposure Notifications System used within the app must ‘not share location data from the user’s device with the Public Health Authority, Apple, or Google’.
An update to the NHS Covid-19 app has been delayed after the Government tried to add a check-in sharing feature that goes against Apple and Google rules
Covid app ‘looked at adding vaccination status’
The NHS Covid app has looked at adding vaccination status.
Amid calls for No10 to bring in vaccine passports, developers claim to have explored options that would let users upload their vaccination status.
Thousands of pubs, bars and restaurants asked users to check-in with the app during the summer.
Senior ministers have urged Boris Johnson to consider vaccination certificates in order to help breathe life back into the crippled economy.
Downing Street has insisted ministers have ‘no plans’ to use the test and trace app to make people prove they have taken the vaccine.
But a source close to the project told The Times: ‘We would be negligent if we would not look into integration of vaccination data into the app.’
When approached about the matter, DHSC confirmed the update has been delayed but refused to say whether it had been blocked by Apple and Google for breaching their privacy terms.
‘The NHS Covid-19 app is a key tool in our pandemic response,’ a spokesperson said.
‘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 deployment of the functionality of the NHS Covid-19 App to enable users to upload their venue history has been delayed.
‘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.’
Changes that force every individual within a party to check in using the app or leave their contact details with the venue owner will continue, instead of allowing just one member of the party to check in as before.
Scotland, which runs its own app, appears to have got around the issue by launching a separate check-in app in December, leaving the original Protect Scotland app to focus on detecting other positive users that individuals come into close contact with.
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