In Brief

Virus-tracing app offers hope for end to UK lockdowns

The opt-in app would alert users if they come into contact with someone who tests positive for Covid-19 infection

The UK government is hoping to ease nationwide lockdown measures by releasing an app that alerts users if they have been in recent contact with someone who tests positive for the Covid-19 coronavirus, according to reports.

The BBC says scientists have told ministers that the location-tracking tech would “enable a week’s worth of manual detective work to be done in an instant” - and could “play a critical role” in limiting further clampdowns.

The app - being developed by the National Health Service’s innovation arm NHSX - “would record people’s GPS location data as they move about their daily lives”, the broadcaster explains. 

“This would be supplemented by users scanning QR (quick response) codes posted to public amenities in places where a GPS signal is inadequate, as well as Bluetooth signals.”

The technology would be used “to connect users’ phones to other nearby phones, and to record people who have come into close proximity - at a distance of two metres - for 15 minutes”, says The Telegraph.

If a user began to feel unwell, they would be able to use the app to request a home test. If they then tested positive for the new coronavirus, an instant alert would be sent to everyone with whom they had been in close contact in recent days, although the identity of the infected person would not be revealed.

The newspaper adds that “NHSX has been working on a six-week development window, and the app should be ready within a month”. 

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Matthew Gould, CEO of the tech-focused division, said: “NHSX is looking at whether app-based solutions might be helpful in tracking and managing coronavirus, and we have assembled expertise from inside and outside the organisation to do this as rapidly as possible.” 

Sky News reports that “NHS bosses hope the app will attract more than 50% of the population, as large numbers of people using it together will be necessary for it to work effectively”. 

The Telegraph adds that while the government “does not intend to make the app compulsory in order to lift the lockdown”, citizens “will be encouraged to use it in order to avoid lengthier and more stringent restrictions being put in place”.

The tech could save “a substantial number of lives”, according to Professor Christophe Fraser of Oxford University’s Big Data Institute, who has co-authored a newly published study on the app plans.

Enabling an easing of lockdown measures would also have other “very substantial and direct benefits”, including boosting the economy by allowing people to return to work, Fraser says.

Similar smartphone software to tackle the global coronavirus outbreak has already been deployed in countries including China. 

In Singapore, relatively low levels of coronavirus infection in the city-state’s population have been credited in part to the government’s use of contact-tracing app TraceTogether. 

However, as The Telegraph notes, concerns have been raised in the UK “over data protection and privacy amid fears the new app could lead to widespread surveillance of the population”.

Sky News reports that NHSX is to appoint an ethics board to oversee the project.

But privacy campaigners and data protection advocates have “questioned whether any board of this kind would be independent, and raised concerns about the app’s safeguards”, the broadcaster adds.

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