The Health Secretary cited terrorism as an area where Apple had allegedly failed to work with governments
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The Health Secretary has accused Apple of refusing to cooperate with “democratically elected governments” after being forced to ditch the original version of the contact-tracing app due to issues with iPhones.
Signalling the frustration of ministers towards the tech giant, Matt Hancock on Sunday claimed that Apple was being “intransigent in the face of perfectly reasonable requests” as he highlighted previous rows over terrorism.
With work now underway on a “hybrid” app, which will seek to incorporate components of the NHS version and one produced by Apple and Google, he also rejected claims the companies had not been consulted on the new plan.
However, ministers were themselves facing accusations of being obstructive on Sunday evening as the developers of rival apps to the NHS version claimed they had been blocked and “treated like the enemy.”
Scientists working on alternative British apps claimed that NHSX, the technology unit responsible for the Government’s failed app, and the Ministry of Defence told developers their apps might distract attention from the official version when it was launched.
They include Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London, whose Covid Symptom Study app has tracked the symptoms of 3.5 million Britons as well as patterns of infections across the country.
Prof Spector told the Observer: “We were hampered from the beginning, in March when we first contacted NHSX. They were very worried about our app taking attention away from theirs and confusing the public.
“Lots of signals went to places like the universities, my university, the charities and the royal colleges not to back our app because that would interfere with their one.”
Separately, Ian Gass of Agitate, which set up Ink C-19, an app designed to make reporting symptoms as simple as possible, said he was approached by the Government in March and described the interaction as “not friendly”.
The row comes just days after the Government was forced to abandon the original NHSX app after an internal audit found it could detect only one in 25 contacts on Apple phones.
While it performed significantly better on Android devices, the operating system used by Apple meant that a Bluetooth function in the app would not work properly on iPhones.
Despite requesting that Apple introduce a workaround to allow it work more effectively, Mr Hancock said the company had refused to change their system.
Speaking to Sky News’s Sophy Ridge programme, Mr Hancock said: “I wish…that Apple had made the change that was needed for it to work on Apple phones in the same way that the original works on Android phones but we will get there.
“It’s a perfectly reasonable point that people make which is that Apple have in the past also been intrasnigent in the face of perfectly reasonable requests from democratically elected governments to work with them on solving particular problems, whether that’s about solutions to terrorism or other technical problems.”
His comments appear to refer to a series of disputes between Apple and the US government over its refusal to unlock the phones of the San Bernardino terrorist in 2016 and the gunman behind a mass shooting at a US Navy base in January.
Apple declined to comment when approached, but has previously stated that it did provide assistance to the US authorities.
On unlocking phones, it argues there is “no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys” and that creating one could be exploited by people deemed a threat to national security.
Government sources also claimed the Home Office had also experienced problems with Apple when setting up the EU settlement scheme for Europeans applying to remain in the UK after Brexit.
With ministers now working on a new version of the app with Google and Apple, Mr Hancock said he was “highly confident” that it would eventually be rolled out alongside the physical contact tracing system.
However, he refused to set a deadline for it going live, adding that he was “just going to work hard to get it as soon as possible”.
Pressed again, he continued: “Given my experience over the last three or four months on this one, I’m not going to put a date on it. We’ll just work incredibly hard to make it happen.”