June 16, 2020 / 8:37 AM / 2 months ago

Germany launches coronavirus app as EU eyes travel revival

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany appealed to the public on Tuesday to download a new smartphone app to help break the chain of coronavirus infections, one of several such apps that European governments hope will revive travel and tourism safely.

The Corona-Warn-App, now available for Apple and Android devices, uses Bluetooth short-range radio to measure close contacts between people and issues a warning should one of them later test positive for COVID-19.

“This app isn’t a cure-all. It’s not a free pass. But it’s an important additional tool for containing the pandemic,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told a launch event.

Germany joins Italy, Poland and Latvia in launching apps based on technology from Apple and Alphabet’s Google that preserves privacy by logging Bluetooth contacts securely on devices.

In news coinciding with the German launch, European Union members agreed technical standards for national apps to ‘talk’ to each other - a step towards making it possible to trace infections across borders.

“As we approach the travel season, it is important to ensure that Europeans can use the app from their own country wherever they are travelling in the EU,” Commissioner Thierry Breton said in a statement.

SECOND TIME LUCKY

The German app nearly went off the rails in April as Berlin abandoned an initial approach that would have stored data on a central server - which privacy experts said could allow people’s relationships to be spied on.

The government drafted in Deutsche Telekom and SAP to salvage the project quickly. Initial downloads from the Google Play Store ran into the hundreds of thousands, Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Hoettges said.

Public enthusiasm for the app has been mixed - last week’s Politbarometer opinion poll for ZDF found that 42% of people would download it and 46% would not, while 8% didn’t have a new enough smartphone.

“I’m doing my part,” YouTuber Mori said on his Twitter feed, posting a screenshot of the app. Some others grumbled that they needed to upgrade the operating system on their iPhones before they could download the app.

Although the proximity-tracing technology is new and untested, the 20 million euro ($23 million) cost of developing the Corona-Warn-App pales by comparison with multi-billion-euro fiscal stimulus measures and corporate bailouts.

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That makes it a relatively cheap bet on supporting the existing system of testing and contact tracing that has already contained the pandemic in Europe’s largest economy. Germany reported just 378 COVID-19 cases and nine fatalities on Tuesday.

“It’s easier to keep infections low than to beat them down from a high level,” said Chancellery Minister Helge Braun. “The app makes sense from Day 1.”

($1 = 0.8840 euros)

Reporting by Douglas Busvine, editing by Ed Osmond and Mike Collett-White

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