Picture: REUTERS/LUKE MACGREGOR
Picture: REUTERS/LUKE MACGREGOR

Mobile phone applications that trace the new coronavirus could help decide whether business travellers and holidaymakers get to meet clients or visit their favourite beaches this summer. But politics and disagreement over what system to use threatens to thwart that solution.

Governments in Europe and elsewhere are turning to voluntary mobile apps to help trace possible infections of the coronavirus, a tool that will help track and contain what they expect to be resurgent outbreaks of the virus once lockdown measures lift and people start to fly internationally.

But officials, airlines and experts say they are worried that some countries — such as the UK and France — are working on systems that are fundamentally incompatible with others, such as Germany and Austria.

EU tech tsar Margrethe Vestager made the issue clear to members of the European parliament this week: “Without interoperability, we will not be able to travel,” she said.

In Europe, where travel has been curbed between the bloc’s 27 nations in recent weeks, officials at least agree that apps are an important way to facilitate the return of free movement.

“Without technology it will be very difficult to open to the degree that we want to,” Vestager said in an online briefing with members of parliament last week.

Contact tracing

At issue are diverging approaches over how to handle the apps, which trace who may have been exposed to Covid-19, despite a push by the EU to make them interoperable.

The way countries are rolling out the apps now, a person’s exposure traced on an app in France would not carry over into Germany if they travelled there, nor would authorities easily be able to exchange that information.

While some countries such as Belgium are considering eschewing mobile tracing apps altogether, most other European nations are designing voluntary systems based on Bluetooth technology. Authorities are hoping a majority of the population will download them, allowing them to more easily alert individuals of possible infections. With their apps, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and other countries are opting for a decentralised system, which mostly stores information on a person’s phone and will be supported by a tool jointly developed by Apple and Alphabet’s Google.

By contrast, the “centralised” method, pursued by France and the UK, would allow information about someone’s contacts to be uploaded to government servers. Officials and experts say those two systems are incompatible. “You’re fundamentally sharing different kinds of data,” said Marcel Salathe, an associate professor at the Ecole polytechnique federale de Lausanne.

France, meanwhile, is in a standoff with Apple because the company rebuffed the government’s request to modify privacy and security settings for apps that use the iPhone maker’s Bluetooth technology. French authorities say they need a workaround for their centralised app.

Because France’s app would not be interoperable with most other countries’, it means any travel could be paired with orders to quarantine both upon arrival and return, said a senior French official with knowledge of the government’s plans. Other officials say the government would seek to avoid such an extreme measure for travel within Europe.

Restarting airlines

Representatives for the airline industry — battered by grounded fleets and plummeting passenger numbers — urged for a cohesive approach to the technology. Airlines for Europe, an association that represents Air France-KLM, Deutsche Lufthansa and easyJet, said contact-tracing apps could, among other measures, play an important role in reviving operations by potentially preventing travellers from coming into contact with coronavirus carriers on board a plane and at airports.

But co-ordination at the European level is key regarding the use of apps, said A4E spokesperson Jennifer Janzen. “We need to avoid any risk that passengers would have to download multiple apps for a single trip, for example.”

Montserrat Barriga, director-general at the European Regions Airlines Association, which represents TAP Air Portugal and Croatia Airlines, among others, said there is a clear need for co-ordination and harmonisation on contact-tracing processes.

“This is a global industry that requires a global approach, avoiding the adoption of local variations where possible,” she said.

A representative for Frankfurt airport, one of Europe’s busiest, says they are in favour of any measure that will enable safe flying in times of the pandemic but that discussions about such apps must take place at a political level internationally.

EU officials are pressuring governments to align on the issue, stressing that citizens need to be able to be alerted of possible contagion wherever they are in the EU.

In the discussion with the members of parliament, Vestager said: “We all hope that this summer is not lost, that we will be able to have vacations and travel.”

Bloomberg