Contact tracing app could be key to ending lockdown

This NHSX app has been trailed a number of times.

The Government central strategy of skipping any mass testing and going for “herd immunity” (despite there being no evidence that long term immunity is acquired by infection) is in disarray. Covid-19 appears to be behaving in a different way to that used in the initial modelling. This has left us running hard to catch up.

So is this tracing app part of a well thought through Plan B or another clutching at straw exercise such as the anti-body test that everyone could buy from Amazon? (Owl is not arguing that risks should not be taken, but that the Government acts as a well-informed purchaser of biotechnology)

Owl’s previous comment on this app was that it might well work in a metropolitan/city environment but questioned its use in the country. For example, Owl notes that to be successful, a 60% take up in the population would be necessary. For comparison, the Covid-19 tracker app, which is proving very useful as a sampling and general infection tracking tool, managed to get a staggering 2m contributors in a couple of days. But this corresponds to only about a 4% take-up in the population.

In the country, do 60% of every community have a smart pone (or even a reliable mobile signal)?

Owl thinks that this app cannot replace an active contact tracing and tracking system in the country.

Greg Wilford, the Times 13 April 2020

An app that will trace users who have come into contact with coronavirus has been hailed as key to ending the lockdown.

The NHS is working on a mobile phone app that will alert people who may have become infected by those around them in the hope that it will allow the government to begin relaxing social distancing measures.

On Friday Google and Apple announced they were working together to create their own that can be downloaded on to billions of phones worldwide.

They said national health services like the NHS could use the data for their own versions while apps in different countries could work together.

This means that if someone using a contact-tracing system by the NHS travels overseas, their phone can still log the details of people they come into contact with even if the other person was using another system.

Whitehall sources told The Sunday Times that the NHS’s technology arm, NHSX, has been working with Google and Apple “at breakneck speed” to develop its app. They said it was a central plank of the government’s strategy to lift the lockdown. “We believe this could be important in helping the country return to normality,” a source said.

They hope it could help them begin lifting the lockdown late next month. The two technology giants said: “There has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems.”

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is said to be considering how to encourage people to install the app. Experts believe the “track and trace” element will only work if 60 per cent of the public uses it. One idea would be that people are told they can resume normal work and home life if they have installed it on their phones.

The system would work by using short-range Bluetooth signals. These would enable phones to record a list of everyone with whom their owners have come into close proximity in the past two weeks, providing that those people also have smartphones. If someone on that list tests positive for Covid-19 and notifies a public health app, everyone else is alerted and told to self-isolate.

Data would not go to police to enforce social distancing as this may put people off using it. Google and Apple say this should allay privacy concerns.