Apple Google app

Northern Ireland is planning to release its own coronavirus contact-tracing app within weeks, the BBC has learned.

It follows the failure of the NHS app in England, which was trialled on the Isle of Wight.

The NI app will be based on the Google/Apple model.

It is designed to be compatible with an app due to be released soon in the Republic of Ireland. That app is also based on the toolkit provided by Apple and Google.

The Apple and Google model is more privacy-focused, but provides less data to epidemiologists than the centralised version that England was trialling.

“The Health Minister has commissioned work to develop a proximity app, based on the de-centralised Google/ Apple model, for use in Northern Ireland,” said the Northern Ireland Department of Health in a statement.

“This work includes examining the interoperability of apps and the sharing of information across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic,” it said.

It added that the Information Commissioner, Equality Commission and NI Human Rights Commission were all involved in exploring “statutory information governance, equality and human rights issues”, and that their assessments would be published.

If Northern Ireland does manage to release a functioning contact tracing app within weeks that will be a major embarrassment to the UK government.

After all, in England an NHS team managed to spend four months and nearly £12m ($15m) developing a centralised app that did not work.

The Health Secretary Matt Hancock then announced that the new focus would be on a decentralised app using the Google Apple toolkit – but that was unlikely to be ready for months.

Then this week the prime minister assured the House of Commons that no country in the world had a working contact tracing app.

Yet Northern Ireland’s health minister seems confident that a few weeks work, perhaps building on the experience of Germany and other countries which have released decentralised apps, can deliver something that will do the job and even be compatible with the Irish Republic’s project.

The NHS X team had always hoped its app would be rolled out across the UK – now perhaps it’s Northern Ireland which will provide a high tech contact tracing solution that all four home nations can use.