Britain scraps virus tracing app for Google-Apple system

This combo of photos shows the logo for Google, top and Apple, bottom. Apple and Google on Wednesday, May 20, 2020, released long-awaited smartphone technology to automatically notify people if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus. (AP Photo/File)

LONDON — Britain is scrapping plans to launch its own coronavirus contact tracing smartphone app because of technical problems and will now work on building one using technology supplied by Apple and Google, health authorities said Thursday.

The government’s app had been undergoing trials on the Isle of Wight, and was expected to be rolled out to the rest of the country later. But the program, previously hailed as a fundamental pillar of the U.K. response to the pandemic, has been delayed.

Officials overseeing the app’s development said they couldn’t overcome a number of technical challenges they found during field tests with the app, such as reliably detecting other users on specific mobile operating systems.

Governments around the world have been turning to smartphone technology to help battle fresh virus flare-ups as they ease lockdown restrictions. But technical problems and privacy concerns have dogged the development of virus tracing apps.

Britain initially opted to develop its own “centralized” app that sent data about contacts to government servers to analyze. The app is part of a broader British “test and trace” program that includes 27,000 human contact tracers hired to track down anyone who’s been in close contact with an infected person, so they can be told to seek treatment or self-isolate.

Other European nations such as Switzerland, Germany and Italy, are using a “decentralized” approach based on the Apple-Google smartphone interface, which experts say is better for privacy because it keeps data on phones.

The government is set to brief reporters later Thursday about the next stage of development in the contact tracing app.