Track and trace. What it is, what it will deliver, and can we trust it?
Fewer people are testing positive for COVID-19 and lockdown is easing. However, attention has now turned to how we can prevent a second wave and prevent the transmission of the virus.
Contract tracing is where individuals who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 will be traced.
NHS contact tracers will ask these people to self-isolate for 14 days. However, the app has been delayed until early winter for its deployment.
What is the premise?
If you test positive for COVID-19 you will be contacted by text, email or phone and asked to log on to the NHS Test and Trace website. You will then be asked for some personal information including your date of birth, postcode, who you live with, places you have recently visited, names and contact details of people you have been in close contact with.
This contact must have taken place within a 9-day period and 48 hours before your symptoms appeared.
However, the UK has changed the way its contract tracing app previously worked.
How would it have worked?
Once the app is installed on a user’s phone, it would use Bluetooth to keep a record of other people with whom they came into close contact. However, this is only if they too have installed the app.
If someone tested positive for COVID-19, this would send an alert to their close contacts telling them to go into quarantine.
Timeline of events
The BBC have created a useful infographic about how this app will work specifically if you follow this link.
However, this Bluetooth connection on smartphones to detect contacts was untested technology.
From a BBC timeline of events, here is the progress of the app so far according to a further BBC article:
12 April: Heath Secretary Matt Hancock announces development of “a new NHS app for contact tracing”
5 May: App trial begins on Isle of Wight; Mr Hancock tells the BBC that if successful, the app will be rolled out across England by mid-May
28 May: Contact tracing system launched in England without app
5 June: Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi expresses hope that the app will be running by the end of the month
17 June: Health Minister Lord Bethell tells MPs that the app is no longer a priority, and that the government is “seeking to get something going for the winter”
18 June: Government abandons its original plans for a contact tracing app and switches to a model based on technology provided by Apple and Google
24 June: Prime Minister Boris Johnson says: “No country in the world has a working contact-tracing app.” This has been disputed, with Germany, France and India cited as three countries with functional tracing apps
The government are now abandoning the centralised app and will be basing the app on Google and Apple’s technology.
The test in the Isle of Wight showed a major flaw – it did not detect 96% of contacts with Apple iPhones.
There is little proof that smartphone apps using Bluetooth are effective for contact tracing. Tech might be able to help with some of our problems, but certainly not all.
Would it ever work?
The number of downloads is critical for its success.
- Germany launched Corona-Warn-App at the end of June, and it has been downloaded 13 million times.
- India launched its app named Aarogya Setu which has 131 million downloads.
- Singapore are planning on distributing wearable devices for individuals without smartphones to increase the proportion of the population able to access this technology.
- France launched an app and two million people downloaded it, yet around half a million people have uninstalled it since. However, it is argued that although the number of downloads is disappointing, if there is a second spike in COVID-19 cases it will be useful.
- South Korea have an app to check that travellers in the country are sticking to quarantine rules.
Concerns about Privacy.
Any track and trace measure will monitor phones to assess proximity to other people and their locations. This uses personal data which is not necessarily anonymised.
Amnesty International have warned that the contact tracing apps in Buhrain, Kuwait and Norway are ‘highly invasive surveillance tools’ and are dangerous for privacy. Norway has suspended its app and Germany are mindful to not log a person’s location.
There is a divide between protection privacy and tracking the virus effectively.
It will probably be no surprise when I mention that there has been an increase in phishing attempts since the outbreak of COVID-19. Do not get caught out by scammers.
If you are contacted by the NHS Track and Trace service, it will ONLY be from the number 0300 0135 000.
No bank details are required, no accounts such as social media accounts are required, and no password or PIN set up is required.
This instruction to self-isolate is also currently voluntary. However, if an employee cannot work from home an employer must provide sick pay to the employee or give them the option to use their paid leave days if they prefer. Self-employed people who also cannot work from home can apply for a grant through the income support scheme.