The NHS is preparing to release an app that alerts users if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus, in a move that could pave the way towards the end of the lockdown.
Given the source, Owl thinks it is likely to reflect the current government thinking on how to relax lockdown. However, as mentioned in the article, it does depend for success on a high level of testing. Owl also wonders how applicable this is outside a metropolitan/city environment.
By Sarah Knapton, Science Editor www.telegraph.co.uk
The opt-in programme is likely to be rolled out as the current restrictions on movement are lifted – and, if successful at limiting the spread of the virus, could prevent the need for further clampdowns.
Experts are now expecting the British epidemic to peak around Easter, before a steady decline.
At the Government’s daily press briefing, Prof Stephen Powis, Medical Director of NHS England, said “green shoots” were emerging after new cases began to plateau.
But he warned the death toll would continue to rise in the next fortnight.
“So green shoots, but only green shoots, and we must not be complacent and we must not take our foot off the pedal,” he said.
The Government is hopeful that once the number of new cases is sufficiently reduced, the app could help it remain low, allowing the public to resume their daily lives.
It will work by using Bluetooth technology to connect users’ phones to other nearby phones, and to record people who have come into close proximity – at a distance of two metres – for 15 minutes.
If someone tests positive for coronavirus and records it on the app, it will automatically alert those who were near them in the past few weeks, and ask them to self-isolate.
The success of the app will rely on the availability of widespread testing, which has not yet been achieved.
The Government does not intend to make the app compulsory in order to lift the lockdown, but millions will be encouraged to use it in order to avoid lengthier and more stringent restrictions being put in place.
If the limitations on movement are lifted and infections and deaths rise again, the country could be placed back into a strict lockdown.
Countries across Europe, including Germany and Denmark, have started to consider when they can lift lockdown restrictions, amid growing concerns over the impact on the European economy.
Singapore’s relatively low levels of coronavirus infection have been the result, in part, of the Government’s use of the contact tracing app TraceTogether. On Sunday, the city state recorded only its third death from Covid-19 from a total of 926 reported cases.
But there have been concerns over data protection and privacy amid fears the new app could lead to widespread surveillance of the population.
NHSX, the unit driving the digital transformation of health and social care in the UK, has been working with civil rights groups to make sure data is anonymised and not used to monitor citizens.
The Telegraph understands that NHSX has been working on a six-week development window, and the app should be ready within a month.
Developers hope a majority of the population will download it, but new modelling from Oxford University has shown that it does not need everyone to sign up to be effective.
Professor Christophe Fraser, Senior Group Leader at the Oxford Big Data Institute, said: “It’s not a niche thing – the majority of people will have to have it – but you don’t need everyone for it to work, and some people won’t have smartphones,” he said.
“We’re all in lockdown, and somehow or another we’re going to have to figure out a way to move on, and, yes, testing will be really important, but an app that helps make sure people self-isolate could solve a lot of problems.”
Alongside a ramping up of community testing, the app could help Britain get out of lockdown sooner without risking a second peak, amid growing fears that the restrictions could cause more harm than good.
Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, was urged by one of his ministers not to “crash our economy” by imposing further lockdown measures in the first sign of a Cabinet split on the issue.
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said that if people who cannot work from home were stopped from going to work, “millions” would be forced into poverty, which “would do more harm than the virus itself”.
Mr Shapps told the BBC: “One of the things we need to be careful not to do is completely crash our economy to the point where it is impossible or very difficult to pick up again afterwards.”
The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) also warned that lower incomes would lead to a fall in tax revenues and higher public spending, which, taken together with emergency measures to help businesses, could leave Britain facing a £200 billion deficit, compared to the £55 billion forecast in the Budget just three weeks ago.
Isabel Stockton, a research economist at IFS, said: “A 5 per cent hit to GDP this year could be an underestimate, and even that would mean £115 billion less goods and services produced this year. That’s equivalent to over £4,000 per household in the UK.”
In a letter sent out to every household this week, Mr Johnson said he would “not hesitate to go further if that is what the scientific and medical advice tells us we must do”.
But Cabinet ministers have privately expressed concerns at the Prime Minister’s suggestion that the national shutdown might get even stricter if the current lockdown measures do not have the desired effect.
One minister told The Telegraph that while the country was currently supportive of the lockdown, “that might not be the case after Easter”.
Downing Street distanced itself from Mr Shapps’s comments and said that the Government had put in protections for the economy.
Civil liberties groups warned that developing a contact tracing app so quickly could put people’s privacy and data at risk.
In the UK, 22 per cent of adults do not have a smartphone, and this rises to 45 per cent of adults over 55, which has led to fears of health inequalities as those without the app will not know they are at risk.
Jim Killock, Executive Director of Open Rights Group, said: “At the moment, with the information we know, it sounds like a reasonable approach – but as a whole, the Government has been quite bad at communicating.
“Something like this has a lot of risks involved: privacy, technical, data security and delivery risks. In order to build a huge piece of software that’s going to be used by millions of people in a couple of weeks, is a pretty challenging endeavour.”
Silkie Carlo, Director of the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, warned that, if abused, any automated contact-tracking data could become a form of ‘mass surveillance’.
“Any experimental attempts at individualised tracking on a mass scale will be fraught with inaccuracies, further unnecessarily burdening our health services, and could damage trust in medical confidentiality to the point where people don’t report their symptoms.”
The NHS is also believed to be involved in a number of other digital initiatives including a symptom tracker, data app and data store.
An NHSX spokesperson said: “NHSX is looking at whether app-based solutions might be helpful in tracking and managing coronavirus, and we have assembled expertise from inside and outside the organisation to do this as rapidly as possible.”