With the country remaining on lockdown throughout the Easter bank holiday weekend, the government is racing to find a way to ease stay at home restrictions, hoping that the new NHS contact tracing app could be key to easing lockdown measures.
In the government’s coronavirus briefing delivered on Sunday 12 April, health secretary Matt Hancock said the NHS would soon be launching an app that informs users if they’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. The news came as the death toll soared above 10,000 over the long weekend, with the number of fatalities standing at 11,329 at the time of writing.
The move comes after the successful launch of the ‘close contact detection app’ in China in February this year, which allowed users to sign up by scanning a QR code with their smartphones through WeChat, Alipay or QQ. Users can then check the health status of up to three other individuals by keying in their ID numbers. If close proximity to a person who has contracted the virus is confirmed, potential victims are advised to stay home and inform local Chinese health authorities.
At the press conference on Sunday, the health secretary announced:
“Today I wanted to outline the next step: a new NHS app for contact tracing. If you become unwell with the symptoms of coronavirus, you can securely tell this new NHS app and the app will 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” – Matt Hancock, MP
Those who suddenly start to feel unwell can send a yellow warning straight to their contacts’ device. A red alert is sent to users if the sick person is confirmed to have coronavirus, with the app recommending those who have been in contact with the victim to remain in quarantine to help prevent the spread of the pandemic.
NHSX, the technology faction of the National Health Service, has been working in partnership with Apple and Google to develop the contact tracing app. The tech firms announced that they were collaborating with a contact tracer involving Bluetooth signals on Friday 10 April.
The companies’ statement said:
“Across the world, governments and health authorities are working together to find solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, to protect people and get society back up and running. Software developers are contributing by crafting technical tools to help combat the virus and save lives. In this spirit of collaboration, Google and Apple are announcing a joint effort to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design”
With global public health authorities, universities and NGOs striving to create opt-in contact tracing tech, Apple and Google are hoping to build a comprehensive solution that incorporates application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to enable successful contact tracing. Given the urgency of the situation, the companies plan to implement the solution in two steps while maintaining strong protections around user privacy.
Apple and Google will kick-off their plan in May, when both companies are scheduled to release APIs that will permit interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. Then, the companies will “enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms”. This will allow more users to participate (if they choose to opt in), as well as enable interaction with a broader network of apps and government health authorities.
The companies emphasise that “Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort”, noting that:
“All of us at Apple and Google believe there has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems. Through close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments and public health providers, we hope to harness the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID-19 and accelerate the return of everyday life”
Though users opt in voluntarily, cybersecurity experts have voiced concerns that patient data could be compromised following the involvement of tech firms.
Google and Apple follow the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, and AI start-ups Faculty and Palantir in partnering up with the NHS to help fight the growing pandemic.
Dr Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, head of the Computational Privacy Group at Imperial College London, has warned that such apps could “collect sensitive information like location data”, The Telegraph reports.
Mr Hanock responded by stating that “all data will be handled according to the highest ethical security standards” and would not be held “any longer than is needed.
“The more people who get involved then the better informed our response to coronavirus will be and the better we can protect the NHS,” the health secretary concluded.