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.
The software for England and Wales was due to receive an update from April 8, in time for lockdown easing and the introduction of free rapid coronavirus testing for everyone in England.
So far, the app has allowed people to check into indoor places such as bars and restaurants by scanning a QR code before they enter, but the data was kept on the individual’s phone.
Should a venue be identified as a potential virus hotspot, every device is then sent this data, allowing the app to crosscheck with the owner’s own log of locations and alert them if they might have been exposed.
A new version of the app was planned to automate the process more, instead asking users permission to upload their venue history if they test positive.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said this 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.
But this goes against the rules set by Apple and Google, which 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”.
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.