The Government is saying that a contact tracing app is one of the key steps to take before the current lockdown can be relaxed or ended. This is because such an app, if it worked properly, would allow health workers to know who people with coronavirus had been in contact with, tell them about this and give them the chance to self-isolate before they in turn potentially become infectious and transmit coronavirus to others.
The overall purpose of the app is to reduce the spread of the virus by alerting someone who has unwittingly been close to, or in contact with, someone else who has tested positive for coronavirus or who has symptoms of it, so that they in turn can restrict their activities to avoid infecting anybody else. In a relatively short time, this could sharply reduce the overall risk of catching the virus for everybody.
Theoretically, if everyone followed the advice on isolation from the app based on their contacts, it would allow the lockdown to be relaxed sooner. This is because, if everyone who might have the virus was self-isolating, more businesses and places could reopen as the only customers out and about would be theoretically free of the virus.
How Would the App Work?
In simple terms, the app runs on your mobile phone and transmits a signal via Bluetooth. The app picks up signals from all the phones near you inside a certain range and records which phones spent time close to you or beside you for a longer time. If you are diagnosed with the virus, you update the app. The app then sends a message to all the other apps which spent time close to you or beside you for a long time, warning them that they might have caught coronavirus from you.
It is currently unknown exactly how the app will work in its final form, but the most likely operating method is as follows. When the app is installed, every user will always have to keep their device Bluetooth turned on. This will enable the app to communicate wirelessly with other versions, anonymously recording identity, distance between devices and time spent within a set (likely to be 2 metre) range. When a user is informed that they have coronavirus, they will be given a code or similar to input into the app, which will then work out which devices that user had been in contact with. The app will then select which devices have been either too close or in the vicinity of the infected user’s device for too long and send these devices an alert advising users to self-isolate immediately. The app might also be linked to NHS data so that medical professionals could update it on a user’s behalf, but this is not currently confirmed. In addition, it has been confirmed by the BBC that the app will let people self-diagnosis with coronavirus based on their symptoms.
What Stage Has the App Reached?
The app is already being used on the Isle of Wight and the government say it will be made available to the general public by mid-May.
The app is intended to be used by everyone who has a compatible device (phone or tablet), in as large numbers as possible. It is estimated that approximately 80% of smartphone users (or at least 56-60% of the total UK population) would need to use it for the system to function effectively. It is currently understood that it will be voluntary for users to download the app, however, which could make it hard for these numbers to be reached.
Will the App Help Me?
For people who are especially vulnerable to coronavirus, the app might make no difference. This is because, if you are at high risk of dying from coronavirus, getting an alert on your phone to say you might have it is not much help. What you need to do is to stay away from people to minimise the risk. So shielding and self-isolation for many hundreds of thousands of people will likely continue even if the app is successful.
The app mainly helps healthy people by reducing the risk of going out under a relaxed lockdown, by ‘taking out’ from the public people who might be carriers of coronavirus. The app does this by alerting you if you might have been exposed to people infected with coronavirus. This will allow you to take steps to avoid infecting others, such as isolating for up to 14 days or seeking medical attention. It will also help the NHS as, if people are more aware of the need to isolate based on their contacts, that reduces the rate at which infections will spread, and therefore reduces the load on the NHS.
What Concerns are there about the App?
The biggest concern is, of course, whether enough people will use the app for it to work properly. If lots of people are walking around without using the app, those people will not get alerts and if, those non-users get coronavirus, the app cannot tell others that they have been in contact with an infected person. Some people, especially older people, do not have a smartphone at all or one which will run the app, which will cause the same problems. If too many people do not use the app, it might be worthless.
Another concern is whether the app’s data will be followed by the government, as it appears currently that the lockdown may be eased with barely any data collected. In addition, it is common for government projects to result in a case of ‘over-promise and underdeliver’, and it is quite possible that this app will go the same way.
A further concern is about privacy. The National Cyber Security Centre (part of the government) says the app does not collect any data which identifies you personally and that it is not possible to link app data to you as an individual. However, the app does not comply with the usual privacy rules for mobile phone apps, which causes concern.
There are many technical concerns too. Bluetooth is capable of working through walls, which could lead to ‘false positives’ being issued to users who had been in adjoining rooms to infected individuals, but never actually met or saw them and would therefore be unlikely to have been infected themselves. The system is also open to abuse, as users could falsely report having symptoms in order to troll the system. In addition, early data from the Isle of Wight has shown that there are serious issues with device compatibility, with many relatively modern smartphones unable to run the app despite promises that it would be able to do so.
A further concern is that European Union countries are developing their own apps based on the Apple and Google-developed system. The NHS chose not to use this system for the UK app and the two systems may not be compatible. One particular problem might be that UK residents could end up being quarantined for 14 days when visiting Europe once the lockdown is lifted, even if their own UK app shows that they are not infected.
These issues, when taken together, have led to suggestions that the UK may have to discontinue its own app and move to the Apple and Google developed system.
For more information on the app itself and how it will function as well as some details of how privacy concerns will be addressed, an excellent summary is given by the National Cyber Security Centre here while all major news outlets run stories covering how the testing of the app is progressing and offer more details as to when it will be released. For more in-depth coverage of the issues with the concept of a contact tracing app, Cambridge Computing professor Ross Anderson discusses some of the key problems in his blog here.
What Do I Need to Do Now?
For now, however, the best advice on what to do in relation to the app is simply to do nothing. If the Government want the public (outside the Isle of Wight) to download the app, they will announce this.
8 May 2020
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