UK's COVID-19 contact-tracing app to be ready in 2-3 weeks

By Aditi Khanna

London, Apr 28 () A contact-tracing smartphone application which alerts the users of a possible coronavirus case among their recent communications will be ready for use within two to three weeks, British MPs were told on Tuesday.

The voluntary app, developed by NHSX, the digital arm of the UK's state-funded National Health Service (NHS), will first be trialled in a small region and then rolled out further based on results, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee was told.

NHSX chief executive Matthew Gould also stressed that the team had built in a series of measures to reassure people about privacy fears.Advertisement

"We are going as fast as we can, we have teams of people looking at it 24/7," said Gould.

"We are, I hope, on course to have the app ready for when it will be needed, for the moment when the country looks to have the tools to come out of lockdown safely," he said.

The app will work by using a smartphone's Bluetooth technology to keep an anonymous record of other smartphone users they come into close proximity with.
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Gould told MPs that the UK's approach had "a measure of centralisation" as it would be the NHS which sends the alerts to the users.

"We don't believe that's a privacy endangering step. But also, by doing so, it allows you to see the contact graph of how this is propagating and how the contacts are working across a number of individuals, without knowing who they are," he said. Earlier in a blog post explaining the app, Gould had noted that the app could be important in helping the country return to "normality" and beating the coronavirus as it forms part of a wider approach that will involve contact tracing and testing.Advertisement

The technology is based on research evidence developed by epidemiologists, mathematical modellers and ethicists at Oxford University's Nuffield Departments of Medicine and Population Health.

Once the app is installed, it will start logging the distance between your phone and other phones nearby that also have the app installed using Bluetooth Low Energy.

"This anonymous log of how close you are to others will be stored securely on your phone. If you become unwell with symptoms of COVID-19, you can choose to allow the app to inform the NHS which, subject to sophisticated risk analysis, will trigger an anonymous alert to those other app users with whom you came into significant contact over the previous few days," NHSX notes.Advertisement

The app will advise you what action to take if you have been close to someone who has become symptomatic – including advising you to self-isolate if necessary.

"There's an intrinsic risk in building any kind of centralised index of the movement of the entire population which might be retained in some form beyond the pandemic," professor Lilian Edwards, an expert in internet law at Newcastle University, told MPs.

She said that the centralised approach raised questions about privacy.Advertisement

But Gould insisted that the range of protections in place will overcome these concerns. AK MRJ MRJ
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