Germany prepares to launch COVID-19 contact-tracing app 'this week' while UK version stuck in development hell

Though decentralised Deutsche effort hasn't been without problems either

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Germany will launch its coronavirus track-and-trace app later this week, Federal health minister Jens Spahn has confirmed.

In an interview with ARD Television, Spahn said the contact-tracing app will launch "this week" although failed to give a specific day. According to Reuters, local media expects a Tuesday launch.

Contact tracing is regarded as a vital tool to limit the spread of COVID-19, allowing society to return to something resembling pre-pandemic norms. In epidemiology circles, it's an established practice that allows investigators to identify the origins and proliferation of a particular disease. The key difference here is scale, with contact tracing being deployed across a wider population, facilitated by smartphones.

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Germany's app uses Bluetooth signals to identify interactions between individuals, with the proximity and duration recorded and stored locally. These are logged on the device, rather than retained on a centralised server. When an individual is formally diagnosed, the app will upload a list of keys belonging to those they've had contact with. A central server will then issue warnings, telling individuals to get tested or otherwise self-isolate.

Efforts to launch a contact-tracing app in German have been beset with problems, prompting a wholesale redesign in April to a decentralised model. The country previously championed the Pan European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), which has has faced its own challenges, both technical and in terms of governance.

Consequently, it has lagged behind other industrialised nations, including South Korea, Singapore, and Italy.

Sadly, things in the UK are worse. The NHS's contact-tracing app – which was developed in partnership with US tech giant VMWare, as well as smaller Swiss firm Zuhlke Engineering – is still nowhere to be seen after it was trialled on the Isle of Wight from 5 May.

NHSX CEO Matthew Gould had said the app was due to launch across the rest of the UK between two to three weeks after the Isle of Wigh test case. Now it is expected at some point in June.

Unlike Germany, the UK National Health Service's app's "centralised" data approach has raised a number of privacy and data protection concerns. The app's developers have also found themselves battling technical problems, particularly when it comes to allowing interactions between Android and iOS devices.

Track-and-trace tsar Dido Harding – perhaps best known for her disastrous tenure as chief of UK ISP TalkTalk – is yet to confirm a formal launch date. In the meantime, the NHS is relying on a recruited army of human contact-tracers to call the infected and grill them on their interactions so they can warn them to stay home.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised to hire 25,000 contact-tracers, contradicting an earlier figure from health secretary Matt Hancock, who promised 18,000. One source speaking to The Register described these as "furloughed workers" with no real experience, but added they were being supported by others from the civil service who have been seconded to help, including environmental health officers and social workers. ®

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