UK health chiefs are planning to release an app, developed by the health service’s digital transformation arm, NHSX, that traces COVID-19 carriers so that others can keep their distance and slow the spread of the virus.
A new study from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine suggests the app would use GPS location data and quick response (QR) codes around cities to track people’s movements.
If a person shows symptoms, the app suggests requesting a home test which, if it shows a positive result, sends a signal to every user that has encountered the infected person in previous days.
Those people would be advised to self-isolate for two weeks but would not be told who had triggered the warning. The app would also inform workplaces that an infected person has been in the area and that a deep clean is required.
The app has the potential to compress a weeks’ worth of manual testing into an instant message, significantly speeding up the process of tracking the virus. The option of updating the app as the virus changes could also enable health professionals to tackle the pandemic more aggressively.
The paper’s co-lead Professor, Christophe Fraser, said: “The constrictions that we’re currently under place [many people] under severe strain.
“Therefore, if you have the ability, with a bit more information and the use of an app, to relax a lockdown, that could provide very substantial and direct benefits.
“Also, I think a substantial number of lives can be saved.”
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There are issues involved in the rollout, the chief concern being that downloading the app is not mandatory and people must opt-in, meaning many would not end up getting it or even know it exists.
To encourage more people to get the app, the study’s authors suggest it could also act as a hub for coronavirus-related health services and serve as a place to request food and medicine deliveries.
The tracking technology is similar to one used in China. Although the Chinese app is more aggressive than the UK version, it proved successful as slowing the spread of the virus.
Another successful iteration is Singapore’s TraceTogether app. Rather than constantly tracking people it uses Bluetooth to record a user’s proximity to others so that they can be alerted if you later test positive for the virus.