The fate of business travel could hang on COVID-19 tracing apps
Mobile phone applications that trace the new coronavirus could help decide whether business travelers and vacation-goers get to meet clients or visit their favorite 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’re worried that some countries — such as the U.K. and France — are working on systems that are fundamentally incompatible with others — such as Germany and Austria.
European Union tech czar 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 the MEPs on Monday.
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 European Union to make them interoperable.
The way countries are rolling out the apps now, a person’s exposure traced on an app in France wouldn’t carry over into Germany if they traveled there, nor would authorities easily be able to exchange that information.
While some countries like 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 decentralized 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 “centralized” method, pursued by France and the U.K., 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 centralized app.
Because France’s app won’t 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.
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 travelers from coming into contact with coronavirus carriers on-board a plane and at airports.
But coordination at the European level is key regarding the use of apps, said A4E spokeswoman 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, Croatia Airlines among others said there is a clear need for co-ordination and harmonization 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 favor 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 MEPs, Vestager said: “We all hope that this summer is not lost, that we will be able to have vacations and travel.”