Coronavirus: UK considers virus-tracing app to ease lockdown

BBC Technology 31 Mar 2020 02:00
By Leo Kelion Technology desk editor
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A coronavirus app that alerts people if they have recently been in contact with someone testing positive for the virus "could play a critical role" in limiting lockdowns, scientists advising the government have said.

The location-tracking tech would enable a week's worth of manual detective work to be done in an instant, they say.

But the academics say no-one should be forced to enrol - at least initially.

UK health chiefs have confirmed they are exploring the idea.

"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," said the tech-focused division's chief Matthew Gould.

Instant alerts

The study by the team at the University of Oxford's Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine was published in the journal Science.

If a person starts feeling ill, it is suggested they use the app to request a home test. And if it comes back positive for Covid-19, then an instant signal would be sent to everyone they had been in close contact with over recent days.

"The constrictions that we're currently under place [many people] under severe strain," said the paper's co-lead Prof Christophe Fraser.

"Also I think a substantial number of lives can be saved."

The academics note that similar smartphone software has already been deployed in China. It was also voluntary there, but users were allowed to go into public spaces or on public transport only if they had installed it.

One of the ethics specialists involved in the Oxford study said he did not think similar arrangements would be appropriate in the UK, but added that private enterprises might still impose restrictions.

He added that employers might also be justified in requiring staff to use the app if they worked "in an old people's home, with vulnerable groups or [were based] in very crowded places".

"The key question is - does it require everyone to do it for it to be effective?" Prof Parker explained.

"This is a really unusual situation where lives are at risk, so there is a case to be made to make at least some actions compulsory - but there would need to be a really clear case for that and careful oversight."

The paper adds that the app could be updated to tackle the pandemic more aggressively if required.

And while the paper advocates the app being used in conjunction with home tests, Prof Fraser said his team was currently exploring whether it would still be effective if it relied on people using a questionnaire or 111 helpline advisers to diagnose the condition.

He acknowledged some people might be wary of using the service, but hoped they would do so to "save a lot of lives".

"What we're suggesting here is essentially sharing anonymised information [to] put to good use."

We know that the UK is preparing to roll out its own contact-tracing app and this paper by scientists who are close to the government reinforces what a vital role it could play.

The other concern is privacy. With the government wary of being seen as Big Brother, the app would need to convince users it wouldn't allow them to be spied on for ever more.

But while the government will almost certainly make use of the app optional, the concern is that it could become essential for anyone wanting to return to normal life. What, for instance, is to stop pubs and restaurants demanding to see evidence of your Covid status before allowing you in?

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NHSXMatthew Gould
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