UK government hopes COVID-19 tracking app could relax lockdown restrictions

The app alerts users if they have come in close contact with the virus.
By Sophie Porter
12:16 pm
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A new app being developed by NHSX in collaboration with Google and Apple is hoped to be the key to relaxing lockdown measures in the coming weeks and months. The app will utilise Bluetooth technology to inform users if they have been in contact with someone who has a confirmed case of the virus. This could ease restrictions on social isolation, since users will have more information about the spread of the virus and their immediate danger of catching or spreading it. 

It is confirmed that NHSX will be testing a prototype of the software in a secure location in the North of England next week.

There have been some concerns about the viability of the software, since it would require the majority of the population to download the app and would still necessitate regular widespread testing.

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WHY IT MATTERS 

As the UK heads into its fourth week of lockdown, the restrictions on social activity seem to be having a positive impact on reducing the spread of the virus. However, isolation is clearly taking its toll on the population. In a study by ORB International on UK Perceptions and Behaviours, 33% of participants agreed that people in their household were struggling to cope mentally with lockdown restrictions. Although this was a 2% decrease from the previous week, it is still significant that a third of respondents are finding isolation difficult. 

This statistic is in conjunction with 44% of respondents acknowledging a decrease in their household income, up 1% from last week, as many citizens are unable to work. It also correlates with a spike in contact to domestic abuse services across Europe, as victims are stuck at home with their abusers.

Enabling people to return to some semblance of their former lives may also reduce the financial impact that the virus is having on the Government.

THE LARGER TREND 

The World Health Organization says that contact tracing is important because it helps identify individuals that are at risk of becoming infected, and who could then go on to spread the disease. 

Several governments, including Singapore and South Korea, have developed tools to help trace the virus. In late March the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech)the in-house IT agency of the Singapore public service, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MOH), launched a mobile app called TraceTogether, to help support and supplement current contact-tracing efforts in the nation-state, in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The Chinese government also rolled out an app back in February that is intended to help citizens check whether they came into contact with the virus. App users are asked to register a phone number, name and ID number to see if they were in contact with someone infected.

ON THE RECORD

Health Secretary Matt Hancock explained how the app works: “If you become unwell with the symptoms of coronavirus, you can securely tell this new NHS app and the app will then send an alert anonymously to other app users that you've been in significant contact with over the past few days, even before you had symptoms, so that they know and can act accordingly.”

He clarified that “all data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards, and would only be used for NHS care and research. And we won't hold it any longer than is needed."

Lord Evans, the former head of MI5, emphasised that these standards had to be in place to ensure the public’s trust in the app. "People may consider the kind of surveillance needed to keep COVID-19 at bay a price worth paying, but public confidence will only be retained in the longer term if the right controls and accountability are in place."

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