A member of the public wears a a protective mask on the Tube on March 25, 2020 in London, England. British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced strict lockdown measures urging people to stay at home and only leave the house for basic food shopping, exercise once a day and essential travel to and from work
A member of the public wears a a protective mask on the Tube on March 25, 2020 in London, England. British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced strict lockdown measures urging people to stay at home and only leave the house for basic food shopping, exercise once a day and essential travel to and from work

Coronavirus: NHS contract-tracing app could use phones to tell people when they are near someone with Covid-19, scientists say

Plan could allow for countries to come out of lockdown more safely – but prompts privacy concerns

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 31 March 2020 17:08
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A new NHS contact-tracing app could be used to alert people when they are near someone with coronavirus, according to scientists.

The platform would gather information about those who have coronavirus and the people who have been in contact with them.

If someone had been nearby another person who tested positive for Covid-19, they would be encouraged to go home – without knowing who had put them at risk, to protect their privacy and ensure people are not blamed for any outbreaks.

The plan has been proposed by the scientists as a way of reducing transmission and allowing countries to come out of lockdown while keeping new cases to a minimum.

But it has drawn questions from experts, who note that it could infringe privacy and lock out those older people who do not have as easy access to smartphones.

A study by the University of Oxford's Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Population Health published in the journal Science proposes an app that uses Bluetooth to keep a log of all other app users a person has been in close proximity with over a few days.

When an individual tests positive for Covid-19, the app can then be used to notify anyone who has been near them anonymously and advise them to go home and self-isolate as a precaution against further spread.

The Government and NHSX - the national unit tasked with driving forward a digital transformation of the UK's health and social care - are thought to be assessing whether such an idea could work.

"We need a mobile contact tracing app to urgently support health services to control coronavirus transmission, target interventions and keep people safe," Professor Christophe Fraser, from Oxford University's Big Data Institute, said.

"Our analysis suggests that about half of transmissions occur in the early phase of the infection, before you show any symptoms of infection.

"Our mathematical models also highlight that traditional public health contact tracing approaches provide incomplete data and cannot keep up with the pace of this pandemic."

However, scientists behind the project say any such app should be opt-in and provide secure data storage and privacy protection.

Development would follow the lead set by Singapore, which has used TraceTogether in its bid to stop the spread of the virus there.

The Irish Government is also reportedly looking into similar technology.

"A contact tracing app can foster good citizenship by alerting people at risk, it can also help ease us out of confinement," Professor Fraser added.

"If we know we've not been in contact with anyone infected we can leave home safely, whilst still protecting our loved ones and avoiding a broader resurgence of coronavirus in our community."

Additional reporting by agencies

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