Tech companies are developing an NHS app for mobile phones that will warn people if they have been in close proximity to someone suspected to have the coronavirus, the government has announced.
One expert said the app could be used as an early route out of lockdown, allowing users in the clear to have fewer restrictions.
Revealing that the app was being tested, health secretary Matt Hancock said: “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 [them] over the past few days, even before you have symptoms so that they know and can act accordingly.”
Mr Hancock said the government was working with the world’s leading tech companies and experts in clinical safety and digital ethics “so that we can get this right”.
“The more people who get involved, then the better informed our response to coronavirus will be, and the better we can protect the NHS,” he said.
“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 it’s needed.”
The idea is that people who have self-diagnosed as having coronavirus will be able to declare their status in the app, which sends an alert to people they have been close to.
If a test confirms the user is infected, a stronger warning will be sent instead, signalling that the other users should go into quarantine.
Many people are calling for the government to have a clear exit strategy from the lockdown for everyday life to resume.
The health service’s digital innovation unit will test a pre-release version of the software with families at a secure location in the north of England next week, the BBC reported.
Keith Neal, emeritus professor in the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, said: “From what I know from other countries, the app uses Bluetooth to identify other phones with the app when the two phones have been close to each other in the last 14 days.
“Each app user has a unique identifier. If someone tests positive, they use their app to inform the system of having tested positive. The system then alerts all the phone users who have been in close contact with the unique identifier of the case to self-isolate and get tested.”
Data should be deleted after a set period, he said.
“Even with only testing clinical cases in hospital, it will still identify some of those at risk. With widespread testing it will work much better. The more users of the app, the better.
“An option is having the app as an early route out of lockdown, allowing app users less restrictions.
“This has the potential to radically help contact tracing and allow containment to be used as the strategy again.”
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said technology had to be part of that strategy to suppress the virus, but added: “It is also vital to have the proper safeguards and transparency when it comes to capturing or mapping people’s data.”
Acting Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said: “Any proposal on the use of mobile phone data or other technology to track people must also be scrutinised properly by MPs before a final decision is made, further strengthening our argument that parliament should be recalled urgently.”
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