Government to release app to track infections

Written by John Johnston and Sam Trendall on 13 April 2020 in News

Former MI5 head cites importance of controls and accountability

Credit: Pixabay

The government has pinned hopes of easing lockdown restrictions on a new NHS app which can track coronavirus infections.

Officials hope the app, which would alert users if they had come into close contact with an infected person, could prove a key step in their plans to ease lockdown restrictions in the coming months.

The Sunday Times reports NHSX has been working with tech firms at "breakneck speed" on the software which would use Bluetooth technology to track users and help prioritise testing for those who had potentially been exposed to Covid-19.

Ministers hope the app, alongside their pledge to boost testing to 100,000 per day, could help reduce the spread of infection while also allowing them to ease off on the stricter elements of the social distancing rules.

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One Whitehall source told the paper: "We believe this could be important in helping the country return to normality."

Health secretary Matt Hancock discussed the app at the government's daily coronavirus briefing on Sunday.

"Today I wanted to outline the next step: a new NHS app for contact tracing," he said. "If you become unwell with the symptoms of coronavirus, you can securely tell this new NHS app and the app will then send an alert anonymously to other app users that you’ve been in significant contact with over the past few days, even before you had symptoms, so that they know and can act accordingly. All data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards, and would only be used for NHS care and research, and we won’t hold it any longer than it’s needed. And, as part of our commitment to transparency, we’ll be publishing the source code, too. We’re already testing this app and as we do this we’re working closely with the world’s leading tech companies and renowned experts in digital safety and ethics.”

Details of the new scheme come after Downing Street repeatedly refused to say whether they were already using mobile phone data to track footfall in public places ahead of an expected decision on whether to continue lockdown measures beyond next week.

But experts say the so-called "track and trace" technology would only prove useful if 60% of the public install it, with Hancock reportedly considering allowing those who download the app to return to work in a bid to incentivise its use.

It comes as a new poll found 89% of the public believe the government's advice on social distancing is clear and easy to understand.

The OBR international poll for the Sunday Telegraph also showed that 68% of people were supportive of the government's approach to the crisis, but in a worrying sign of the strain of the lockdown measures, a third (33%) said someone in their household was struggling mentally with the restrictions.

And the poll also found that 44% of households had seen a decrease in their income as the economic impact of the coronavirus continues to worsen.

Meanwhile, Lord Evans, the former head of MI5, warned the public would only remain supportive of the government's approach if they remained "accountable" for their actions, warning the proposed NHS app would be a "severe intrusion into personal privacy".

Writing in the Sunday Times, he added: "People may consider the kind of surveillance needed to keep Covid-19 at bay a price worth paying, but public confidence will only be retained in the longer term if the right controls and accountability are in place."


About the author

John Johnston is a political reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared. He tweets as @johnjohnstonmi.

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