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UK's NHS working on app using Apple-Google contact tracking tech

The UK's National Health Service is working with Google and Apple to develop an app to assist with the tracking of COVID-19, a system that may be the contact tracing software the two tech giants recently announced was in development.

On Friday, Apple and Google announced they were jointly working on APIs to allow iOS and Android devices to detect each other using Bluetooth, for the purposes of tracking the spread of COVID-19. As part of the announcement, it was claimed the APIs would be made available for use by public health authorities to use in their official apps, with the UK's NHS seemingly among the first to take them up on the offer.

Sources of The Sunday Times advise the technology branch of the NHS, NHSX, is working on the development of the app with Google and Apple. The app's creation was apparently ordered by government ministers, keen to use technology to minimize the spread and impact of the coronavirus on the country's citizens.

In a daily pandemic update, health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed the app was in development. According to the BBC, a pre-release version of the software will be tested at a secure location in the North of England over the next week.

The app would work in practically the same way as the proposed Apple-Google system, in that Bluetooth would be used to log other devices the smartphone and its user comes into contact with in their daily life. Using a system of exchanging anonymous identifier beacons stored on smartphones, which can be sent to a central database, it aims to allow devices to log if it has been near to someone who recently has been positively diagnosed with COVID-19.

While NHSX reportedly wasn't aware of the Apple-Google project beforehand, it intends to add the API to the app.

If a user is self-diagnosed as having the coronavirus, they can declare the status in the app. A yellow alert is then able to be sent to any users who were recently closeby for an extended period of time.

Following a positive medical test for the virus, a red alert warning will be sent instead, telling others to go into quarantine. To prevent misuse, the user would have to enter a verification code into the app, one that would be received alongside their test result.

Hancock advised the app would be voluntary, but experts warn around 60 percent of the UK population would have to use the technology for it to become an effective tool.

The app's data will be handled "according to the highest ethical and security standards," said Hancock, "and would only be used for NHS care and research. And we wouldn't hold it any longer than is needed."

Update: Government's confirmation of the app's development added to the story.