Europe starts rolling out coronavirus contact-tracing apps as UK plans remain unclear

Jens Spahn,Federal Minister of Health, speaks in a press statement May 6, 2019.

Kay Nietfeld | picture alliance | Getty Images

European governments are forging ahead with the rollout of apps to trace the contacts of coronavirus patients, with the U.K. at risk of falling behind in launching its own platform.

In Germany, a contact-tracing app using Bluetooth technology will be launched later this week. “It’s coming this week,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said over the weekend. Such apps are designed to alert users when they’ve come into contact with someone who has Covid-19.

Germany appears to have done a better job than other European nations at managing the pandemic, recording 8,804 deaths from the virus and a total of 187,682 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Its app is being built with the help of Deutsche Telekom and SAP, and makes use of the privacy-focused application programming interface (API) technology developed by Apple and Google.

The API is a system for app developers to integrate so that they can send out notifications when a user comes into close proximity with someone. Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems run on 99% of the world’s smartphones.

A person using Italy’s new Covid-19 contact tracing app Immuni.

Nicolò Campo | LightRocket via Getty Images

Italy’s government has also launched an app based on the Apple-Google model. Called Immuni, the app was made by local developer Bending Spoons. It’s seen more than 1 million installs on Google’s Play app store.

Italy, once at the heart of Europe’s coronavirus pandemic, has seen its rate of new infections and deaths slow in recent weeks. However, it remains one of the worst-affected countries globally, with a death toll of 34,345 and 236,989 infections.

Experts say contact tracing will be a significant part of countries’ reopening strategies, by getting people to self-isolate if they’re found to have been near a coronavirus patient and therefore exposed to the disease.

Apple-Google model

Division has emerged in Europe over whether or not to adopt Apple and Google’s “decentralized” approach, which processes exposure notifications without storing them on centrally-controlled servers.

According to the Financial Times, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Austria and Switzerland are all using the tech firms’ software to develop their apps. But countries like the U.K., France and Norway have all opted for a more centralized model that gives health authorities central control over the tracing data.

The U.K., which has the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe, has given mixed signals about its contact-tracing app. One minister claimed the service could be ready by the end of the month, but there are doubts over that timing.

The BBC reported that British ministers are considering switching the country’s NHS COVID-19 App to one based on Apple and Google’s tech, as there have been delays in rolling the current version out. The National Health Service has tasked a Swiss IT firm with exploring the option of switching to the Apple-Google model.

An advertising board displaying official coronavirus test-and-trace advice from the U.K. government.

Mike Kemp | In PIctures via Getty Images

The U.K. has already been testing its app on the Isle of Wight, an island just off the south coast of England. A spokesperson for the government’s health department told CNBC the app had racked up more than 54,000 users so far — which represents around 38% of the island’s nearly 142,000 inhabitants.

“There has been a hugely positive reception to the app on the Isle of Wight,” the spokesperson claimed. “Their feedback has been invaluable ahead of rolling out the app nationally soon.”

They said the app would “complement” the government’s existing Test and Trace program, which has hired thousands of human contact tracers.

The French government launched its contact-tracing app, called StopCovid, at the start of the month. It’s unclear how much traction the platform has gained so far, though Digital Minister Cedric O recently said it had been downloaded by 1 million people.

Meanwhile, Norway’s national public health institute on Monday announced it was pausing work on its contact-tracing app and deleting all data collected through it, following a decision from the country’s Data Protection Authority to ban the app’s processing of personal data.

“With this, we weaken an important part of our preparedness for increased spread of infection, because we lose time in developing and testing the app,” the Norwegian Institute of Public Health said in a statement, according to Google Translate.

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