Download coronavirus tracing app to protect your families, public told

The public will be told to download a coronavirus tracing app to protect their families today in one of the biggest government advertising campaigns.

Owl notes the “However…….” and “…It was once the centrepiece of contact tracing, then downgraded to the “cherry on the cake”. Now it seems to be barely more than a high-tech reminder to keep your distance.”

Is this another “Moonshot” over-hyped damp squib?

Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor | Tom Knowles, Technology Correspondent www.thetimes.co.uk 

Attempts will be made to convince people that their risk of infecting vulnerable relatives will be reduced if they use the delayed app, after appeals to civic duty were less effective.

However, one in three people told to isolate by the app will have been given a “false positive”, in which it will have wrongly thought that they had been within two metres of an infectious person for 15 minutes. This is because of its reliance on Bluetooth signals, which can be affected by nearby objects.

Officials said that this accuracy matched other countries’ apps. However, testing chiefs are downplaying hopes for the contact-tracing function, once heralded by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, as a way to get the nation back to normal. The officials now say that the app’s main benefit could be to prompt people to stick to social distancing and hygiene rules.

Mr Hancock will say today that the launch is “an important step forward”, and urge people to use the app “to protect themselves and their loved ones”.

Developers are aiming for up to a third of the population of England and Wales to download the app. Scotland released its own app this month and Northern Ireland launched one in July.

Wolfgang Emmerich, of Zühlke Engineering, which helped to build the app for England and Wales, said it was “arguably the best in the world”. Called NHS Covid-19, the app is available on Apple’s store for iPhone and Google’s Play store for Android phones. Users will be asked to confirm they are over 16 and to enter the first part of their postcode. There are plans for local lockdowns to be triggered and imposed using an automatic traffic light system, with alerts sent to phones using the app.

Analysis

It was once the centrepiece of contact tracing, then downgraded to the “cherry on the cake”. Now it seems to be barely more than a high-tech reminder to keep your distance.

In playing up the personalised information provided by the contact-tracing app, testing chiefs are partly trying to tempt people to use it: who otherwise would download software whose principal feature was that it might order you to stay at home for two weeks?

But it also reflects diminished hopes for a product that became a victim of Silicon Valley hype and the techno-enthusiasm of Matt Hancock. Testing chiefs now admit it should not have been built up as a technology that would magically help to control the pandemic.

Britain looked to have been left behind while others surged ahead. Now officials insist the technology launching today is as accurate as anywhere in the world and a false positive rate of one in three may be better than the ready reckoning of human contact tracing.

 

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