The UK is preparing to anonymously track potential coronavirus carriers on their mobile phones as part of a contract tracing strategy.
Using Bluetooth signals, an upcoming NHS app will let people check if they have been in range of someone who has had symptoms. The idea is to prompt people to self-isolate earlier and prevent them from passing the bug on.
Speaking at today’s Downing Street press conference, deputy chief medical officer for England Jenny Harries told Metro.co.uk: ‘The ambition is to digitalise some of this process – to bring us back out of some of the social distancing restrictions.
‘Having a single model around track and trace is not going to be possible – it will require a certain proportion of us using those phones, it will require very rapid testing of the key individual and very strict compliance of all of those who are been “triggered” – who have been near someone who may have symptoms of coronavirus
– to take appropriate action.
‘There’s quite a lot of work to keep going on that and we are likely to have some sort of hybrid response to manage the digital side and human nature. We are heading in the right direction and testing in that scenario is quite important.’
People experiencing coronavirus
symptoms will be able to tell the NHSX app, which will then alert other users with whom they have had significant contact over the past few days.
If a user tests positive they will be given a code to enter into the app, triggering an alert for people they have been close to and prompting them to self-isolate.
The information could help identify hotspots and trends as a way of gaining a better understanding of the outbreak.
So far NHSX has only said the app will be released ‘in the coming weeks’ and that it is still in the development stage.
It is designed to collect data anonymously will not use any names of patients.
NHSX says users will be able to delete the app and all its associated data whenever they want and that data will only ever be used for NHS care, management, evaluation and research.
No one will be forced to install the app, although the NHS says large numbers of people need to take part for contract tracing to be effective.
NHSX has also said it will publish the key security and privacy designs of the app alongside its source code ‘so that privacy experts can “look under the bonnet”‘, and is working with Apple and Google on the system.
In May, the two companies say they will add the ability for iPhone and Android devices to exchange information with each other using Bluetooth via official health authority contact tracing apps around the world.
The tech giants have said that in the coming months, they then plan to build the technology directly into their operating systems so it can reach more people, including those using older phones and do away with the need to download a third-party app to log contact with others.
iOS and Android account for the vast majority of smartphones being used around the world.
The two companies have pledged to reinforce security too, saying ‘privacy, transparency and consent are of utmost importance in this effort’.