NHS: 'NHS COVID-19’ app for handsets

Wednesday, 6th May, 2020 - 16:56

With COVID-19 putting our lives on hold in these difficult times, we all know how important it is to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. After hearing that the Government is looking to launch a tracking app to help control the pandemic here in the UK, it’s got us all thinking more positively about the current situation and how we can help. The fundamental purpose of the app is to alert the user if they come into near contact with other users who may be displaying symptoms. This is done via Bluetooth and is called contact tracing.

The ultimate goal is to use methods such as this to support the cause and positively move us, as a nation, out of lockdown and towards a safe and secure future. To understand exactly what the app does, we have highlighted some key areas and questions you may be interested in.

What is contact tracing?

To slow down the spread of infectious outbreaks, contact tracing is a method used in practice today in areas such as sexual health. In the COVID-19 Pandemic, it means to track people who have or are suffering from symptoms of Coronavirus, and will ask people that come in nearby contact to be aware and to self-isolate.

Has this technology been used before?

Many countries are already using contact tracing to tackle the world pandemic. Hong Kong, Singapore and Germany amongst others have rolled out the contact tracing method to help manage and control the spread of the virus.

However, it appears that more and more nations are adopting contact tracing, and those that can afford it are designing apps for their populations. Countries such as Australia, Italy, France and the UK will see phones gather anonymised records if apps are approved and used as soon as possible. Other countries such as South Korea have used contact tracing apps from the outset in order to minimise the possibility of a total lockdown. The app contacts anyone who was near to someone who has logged that they are experiencing symptoms of Covid-19.

The UK is planning to roll out its contact tracing app and phone team by the middle of May, in the hope that weeks of social distancing will have made new cases easier to track.

How it works

Contact tracing uses Bluetooth to notify users when they have been in contact with someone who has since logged that they are experiencing symptoms. This effectively automates the laborious tracing process. The free app will advise on what action the user should take at this stage, if necessary.

If or when a user develops coronavirus symptoms, it is up to them to let the app inform the NHS. Their disclosure may trigger an anonymous alert to users with whom they recently had significant contact, again potentially asking those people to go into quarantine or be tested. For those without smartphones, an alternative could be a Bluetooth-enabled wristband, like those being used in other countries to detect lockdown breaches.

Will this help end lockdown?

Possibly, if implemented correctly the technology might help ease UK restrictions. The technology has been credited with helping to lift restrictions in other countries, when combined with other measures.

When is it likely to be released?

The government has said that trials for the tracing app will begin as early as this week on the Isle of Wight, before being rolled out more widely later this month, according to transport secretary Grant Shapps. The government will be asking the whole of the UK to download it, Shapps told the BBC's Andrew Marr.

The demand and delivery for the app couldn’t come sooner as experts say "speed is of the essence", and that delaying contact tracing by even a day from the onset of symptoms could make the difference between epidemic control and resurgence.

Cabinet Minister Michael Gove said; "When it comes to contract tracing, the more people who download the app developed by the NHS the better," he said. "Knowing this is a contribution that all of us can make to helping to keep our communities and neighbours safe is a very powerful incentive."

Prof Stephen Powis, the medical director for NHS England, said the app was one component of a number that will be needed to try to bring the virus under control.

What can the government do with my data?

Keeping data safe is always a priority when it comes to using or testing new technology, and like anything, sadly, you cannot please or convince everyone with an idea or solution. However, the NHSX (the digital development arm of the health service) said “Millions of us are going to need to trust the app and follow the advice it provides”. It says the information gathered will only ever be used for health and research purposes, and that the app can be deleted at any time.

An alternative, decentralised model was put forward by Apple and Google, where the exchange happens on people's handsets. The tech giants say their version makes it harder for hackers or the authorities to use the computer server logs to track and identify specific individuals. But NHSX says its centralised system will help give it more insight into how the disease spreads and help it to make the app more efficient.

We will be following this topic over the coming weeks and will be providing regular updates...

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