Matthew Gould, chief executive of the National Health Service’s technology group NHSX has announced that a COVID-19 contact-tracing app for the UK could be ready “in the next couple of weeks”.
Most countries in Europe that have chosen to use contact-tracing apps at some point have opted for a short-range Bluetooth “handshake” between mobile device options in order to identify a potential contact, although this method does not provide location data.
The new UK contact-tracing app will let people know if they have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The app will use the same short-range, Bluetooth method as other similar apps and is currently reported to be the subject of a rapid testing programme. How the new app performs in the tests will determine how it is deployed, but it looks likely that the app will become an important tool as the UK starts to come out of lockdown.
The announcement of UK’s app has already drawn criticism from some tech commentators who have expressed concerns that the app’s reliance on Bluetooth could negatively affect its accuracy, performance, and security.
Contact-tracing and self-quarantine apps are already being used in other countries. These include:
– Singapore’s ‘TraceTogether’ app. This app uses location data and Bluetooth and once on a user’s phone, the app records when that user goes near another person who has the TraceTogether app. This proximity data is stored on the user’s phone and can be requested for analysis with the user’s permission. The TraceTogether app is also used by the Singapore government to send out updates to citizens via WhatsApp twice a day containing information such as the number of cases, suspected locations of outbreaks, and advice for avoiding infection.
– South Korea’s “self-quarantine safety protection” app and “Corona 100m app”. The “self-quarantine safety protection” app from the country’s ‘Ministry of the Interior and Safety’ is used by central and local governments to send out real-time alerts via text message and the “Corona 100m app” which has been downloaded more than 1 million times and alerts users if they breach a 100-metre (328 ft) radius of the latest tracked whereabouts of a coronavirus patient.
France is opting for a centralised approach for its “StopCovid” app project i.e. storing the personal data of volunteers’ Bluetooth logs on a central server and not on individual devices. However, the app is currently the subject of arguments over civil liberties and privacy.
Germany has decided to use an app with a decentralised, Apple-Google-style approach i.e. logging contacts on individual devices rather than a central server. It is believed that this will make it easier for health authorities to contact users and give advice on the best course of action to them if they are found to be at risk.
Knowing whether someone has had COVID-19 can only really be established with testing. Tests in the UK, however, are only really getting underway now and this means that the app is only likely to be of real use further down the line when more people have been tested.
Businesses will now be thinking about the many ways that they can resume work safely as lockdown rules are relaxed, and many different tools and options may currently be under consideration e.g. changed work layouts and practices to accommodate social distancing, the possible use of thermographic cameras (temperature detection) and other tools such as apps. Just as technology has helped to enable remote, collaborative working, tech tools such as contact-tracing apps are, therefore, likely to be one of many things that can contribute to the country and businesses moving forward prior to the introduction of any effective vaccination programmes or treatments that can seriously limit the most severe symptoms of the COVID-19 virus. For the time being, social distancing is still the central focus of the strategy for all to keep as safe as possible.