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Apple and Google block NHS contact-tracing app update over privacy concerns

QR contact tracing
QR contact tracing

A crucial update to the NHS contact-tracing app has been blocked by Apple and Google after the government broke the terms of agreement it made with the tech giants.

The update, due to have been rolled out on Monday to coincide with the re-opening of the economy , would have allowed users who tested positive for Covid-19 to upload a log of all the times they had scanned a QR code when entering venues.

This QR code could then be used to anonymously warn others if they had visited the same venue at the same time.

But such a feature has been banned by Apple and Google, which provide the software that runs the NHS Covid-19 app in England and Wales.

When it launched, the government had to sign up to an agreement that said the app would “not share location data from the user’s device with the public health authority, Apple or Google”.

The app still works, but the latest features, which were touted by the Government last week, are not yet available, the BBC reported.

While the contact-tracing app came with a feature to scan QR codes, it had not been widely used.

Until now, venues had to warn NHS Test and Trace if there was a Covid outbreak at their venue. If there was an outbreak, smartphone users who had scanned the venue’s QR code could be alerted.

Have you downloaded the Government's contact tracing app
Have you downloaded the Government's contact tracing app

However, the new update would see users actively uploading their “venue history” if they tested positive. In turn, this would be used to warn other visitors.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said the update had 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.”

In Scotland, a similar service that uses QR codes to warn the public of coronavirus outbreaks, called Check-In Scotland, will still go ahead.

However, because this app is separate to Scotland's main Bluetooth contact-tracing app, it has not been found to breach Apple and Google's rules.

It is not the first time the Government has fallen foul of Apple and Google's privacy rules. The UK's first attempt at a contact-tracing app was abandoned after developers attempted to bypass privacy controls built in by the tech giants. However, this left the app less accurate at detecting other nearby smartphones.

The Government switched to Apple and Google's software in June and an app for digital contact-tracing was released in England and Wales in September. The app has so far been downloaded more than 19 million times.

Apple declined to comment. Google did not respond to requests for comment.