The public should download a new contact-tracing app to save lives and protect the health of their loved ones, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has urged.
Launching the trial of the app, which will take place on the Isle of Wight, Mr Hancock said the technology was a key way of keeping the future spread of COVID-19 under control.
Mr Hancock told Isle of Wight residents: “By downloading the app, you are protecting your own health, you are protecting the health of your loved ones and the health of your community.
“I know that the people of the Isle of Wight will embrace this with enthusiasm because by embarking on this project and by embracing test, track and trace, you will be saving lives.”
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The new app could be rolled out across the UK within weeks if the trial on the Isle of Wight proves successful.
However, the launch of the contact-tracing app has sparked privacy concerns, with some arguing against a “centralised” approach to managing information and suggesting there is an increased risk from potential hackers.
The app – which asks for the first part of a user’s postcode – allows people to tell the NHS if they have coronavirus symptoms and book a COVID-19 test. The app tells them to self-isolate while they have their test and await the results.
Using Bluetooth, it also alerts other app users who have been in close proximity with the first user, telling them they should isolate for 14 days.
If the first person’s test comes back negative, the app tells both of them and their contacts to come out of isolation and carry on as normal. But if their test is positive, everyone carries on isolating – with the contacts told to book their own COVID-19 test if they themselves develop symptoms.
© PA Graphics
Speaking at the daily press briefing, Mr Hancock insisted the app “has been designed with privacy and security front of mind” and with input from the National Cyber Security Centre. He said the data is stored on an individual phone and “not by the NHS” until the point at which a person needs to contact the NHS to book a test.
The Government’s testing co-ordinator Professor John Newton said: “The app itself does not hold any personal information. It just has information about the phone, where it was, which other phones it has been in contact with, but only using anonymised, randomly generated numbers.”
He added: “It’s a very safe use of data and people should feel very reassured by all the precautions that have been taken.”
Prof Newton said the app was “very exciting” but added that “shoe-leather epidemiology” in terms of thousands of trained contact tracers would also be in place.
Both plans form the test, track and trace strategy, which aims to cut off routes of transmission for the virus, therefore minimising outbreaks of COVID-19 in the UK.
Mr Hancock hinted this may help ease restrictions by region, saying: “Crucially, test, track and trace allows us to take a more targeted approach to lockdown while still safely containing the disease.”
Earlier England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, said there was “fairly significant optimism” that people would use the app as part of measures to ease the lockdown.
Meanwhile, Matthew Gould, chief executive officer of NHSX – the digital arm of the health service, admitted the app was not a “silver-bullet” solution, but said: “The level of impact of the app depends on the level of uptake.
“We are going to mount a really serious campaign to make sure that people know that if they do want to carry on saving lives, protect the NHS, and get the country back on its feet, then downloading the app is one way they can do that.
“The earlier we can identify and isolate those who have been in contact with cases of COVID-19, the more confidence we can have in releasing restrictions.”
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Mr Gould later told MPs that even if only 20 per cent of people downloaded the app, it would lead to important insights about the spread of COVID-19.
But he added: “If we can get to higher levels – 40, 50 per cent or above – the app can really make a big difference in identifying those who have been in touch with suspected cases of COVID-19 and making sure we can identify and isolate those people earlier and faster and more effectively.”
Mr Gould said he wanted to reassure the public that privacy is “right at the heart” of the app, adding: “(The app) doesn’t know me as ‘M Gould’ – it knows me as a number.”
Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK director, said of the new app: “We’re extremely concerned that the Government may be planning to route private data through a central database, opening the door to pervasive state surveillance and privacy infringement, with potentially discriminatory effects.
“Ministers should instead be examining decentralised, privacy-preserving models such as those many European governments are pursuing.”
The Government is set to review the current lockdown measures by 7 May, although it is not expected to lift any of the current restrictions.
Mr Johnson is expected to set out a “roadmap” on Sunday setting out the next steps, including how social distancing can be maintained while schools and businesses begin to reopen.
What is viral load and why is it important to coronavirus?
Viral load is simply the amount of virus in the body. This varies in different parts of the body, and can change over time. Recent studies have shown, for example, that the viral load in the lungs of COVID-19 patients is greater than that in the nose.
A patient’s viral load increases as the virus replicates and disease symptoms get worse, and then decreases as the patient recovers. So monitoring the viral load can give us a useful indication of how a patient’s infection is progressing.
The amount of virus that you’re exposed to at the beginning of an infection is something different, and this is called the ‘infectious dose’. Studies on other viruses such as the flu and SARS have shown that the higher the infectious dose (the more virus you breathe in), the greater your chances of having more severe symptoms.
With one small exposure, your immune system may be able to fight off the virus before you get sick, but with repeated small exposures (such as touching your face throughout the day) or one large exposure (an infected person coughing in your face), the virus may grow faster than your body can control.
We don’t yet know if this link between infectious dose and disease severity holds for COVID-19, but it may do, and that’s why it’s so important to maintain physical distancing and keep the initial exposure as low as possible.