Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has announced that the UK has “reached the peak” of the coronavirus outbreak this week. With the growing speculation over when lockdown measures might be lifted, the government is planning on introducing a contact tracing app at a large scale to help ease or target quarantine restrictions.
Contact tracing is a preventative technique used to identify those who may have been in contact with confirmed coronavirus cases in order to help track and contain the spread of the illness.
The NHS is developing an app which could identify people who have been in close proximity to a smartphone user with symptoms and suggest if you need to self-isolate or not, making it key to relaxing social distancing measures.
How does it work?
The app has been developed by the health services’ digital innovation unit, NHSX, and will be available for download onto any smart device. Users will then be able to opt-in to record symptoms if they start displaying them. Using Bluetooth LE (low energy) signals, the app will log when smartphone owners are close to each other.
If someone then develops symptoms and logs it on the contact tracing app, a warning alert will be sent to others who have come into close contact with the ill person and instruct self-isolation. The creators have said that users will not be told who triggered the warning and alerts will be sent anonymously.
The tool is said to continue to work in the background on iOS devices, but epidemiologists have stated that 80% of smartphone owners would need to use the app for it to be successful in suppressing the virus after lockdown measures are relaxed. But with 12% of active smartphones in the UK unable to support the Bluetooth LE standard, the target will need to be raised higher.
The app is currently in its trial stages, being tested at Royal Air Force base in North Yorkshire, with the aim of rolling it out to the general public in a few weeks.
An early version of the software is being tested at RAF Leeming, using a scenario that simulates a shopping environment. GP Capt Blythe Crawford commented,
“We still have to apply the rules [on] social distancing as we carry it out… So, therefore, we’ve set up a scenario whereby people will leave their phones on a table simulating that it’s in a shopping arcade, for example, whilst other people might walk past looking in the shop window and their phone happens to pick up it’s in proximity to another one.”
Matt Hancock told the House of Commons, “The more people who sign up for this new app when it goes live, the better informed our response will be and the better we can, therefore, protect the NHS”
Is it safe?
Not everyone is a fan of the new tech, and due to the location-based nature of the app, it is only natural that privacy concerns have been raised.
However, NHSX is working with Google and Apple on the project and has promised to publish the app’s source code and its security and privacy designs to allow security experts to help ensure it is up to standard.
A final decision on the release of the app will be taken by the government, but the NHS hopes to have it in the hands of users by mid-May.
Would you be happy to use a contract tracing app to help ease lockdown restrictions? Let us know your thoughts @hyve!
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