NHS contact-tracing app designed to let people know if they have been close to an infected COVID-19 patient ‘could be ready in two weeks’
- App will be trialled locally and could be broadened UK-wide within two weeks
- Users report symptoms and tech automatically notifies people they contacted
- App considered crucial for helping ease social distancing restrictions in Britain
- Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19
An NHS coronavirus contact tracing app for smartphones could be ready in a fortnight, a senior official revealed today.
The app, which notifies users if they have been in close contact with an infected person, is currently being trialled at a Royal Air Force base in Yorkshire.
Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX – the health service’s technological arm – said tests were going well and it could be rolled out nationwide in two weeks.
Users self-report coronavirus symptoms or log that they have been officially diagnosed, and the app alerts everyone who has come into contact with them.
The app is considered crucial for helping ease social distancing restrictions and getting Britons back to work.
It will be a key part of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s ‘test, track and trace’ initiative to get the UK out of lockdown, which will involve carrying out 100,000 swabs a day.
But the app will need at least 60 per cent of the country to sign up for the app to be effective, according to epidemiologist.
Downloading it will not be mandatory, so there are no guarantees that enough Britons will use it.
An NHS coronavirus contact tracing app for smartphones could be ready in a fortnight, a senior official revealed today
The app automatically notifies users if they have been in close contact with an infected person
Mr Gould told a parliamentary committee today: ‘We hope in the next couple of weeks we’ll be in a position to roll it out in a small area.
‘I would expect it technically to be ready for a wider deployment in two to three weeks.’
A spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the app was ‘obviously a key part of the surveillance programme going forward’, and that the government would set out more details when it could.
For now, ministers were focused on keeping stringent social distancing measures in place to meet the government’s five tests to start any easing, they added.
According to the researchers, the app being developed by NHSX would likely work as follows:
The NHS app will work by recording every time two people are within a certain distance of each other for a prolonged period of time using Bluetooth technology.
When one user registers themselves as being infected, or experiencing tell-tale symptoms, the app will automatically ping notifications to everyone who they could have passed it to.
It might advise them to self-isolate or get tested, depending on their age and vulnerability.
NHSX says the alerts will be sent anonymously so users do not know who may have infected them.
Oxford University epidemiologist, Professor Christophe Fraser, said the app could prevent one infection for every one to two users who download it.
But Professor Fraser – one of the epidemiologists advising NHSX – said 60 per cent of the UK population – or 40 million people – would need to download it for it to be effective.
He said the app addresses the problem that around 50 per cent of transmissions occur before a person shows symptoms.
Professor Fraser told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show that traditional contact tracing methods would not be as effective as the NHS app.
‘We found that when we projected over the next three months, for every one to two users who download the app and who adhere to instructions, you’ll prevent one infection,’ he said.
Oxford University professor Christophe Fraser pictured speaking about the app on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday
CONTACT TRACING REDUCES TIME IT TAKES TO ISOLATE AN INFECTED PATIENT BY TWO DAYS
Contact tracing reduces the time taken to isolate people with COVID-19 by nearly two day, according to a Chinese study.
Researchers from the Shenzhen Center for Disease Control and Prevention claim contact tracing reduced time taken to isolate infected people from an average of 4.6 days down to 2.7 days.
The study was based on an analysis of 391 coronavirus cases and 1,286 of their close contacts in Shenzhen, China, over four weeks between January 14 and February 12.
The disease prevention method also quickened the average time for new cases to be confirmed from 5.5 days to 3.2 days, it found.
‘For this intervention alone to stop resurgence of the epidemic, about 60 per cent of the population would have to use the app.
‘Now that number may be a bit smaller if there are other interventions going on, which we hope there will be, social distancing, large community testing, and indeed manual contact tracing.’
Professor Fraser said the app addresses the problem that around 50 per cent of transmissions occur before a person shows symptoms – calling it a ‘very rapidly transmitted virus’.
He said: ‘The app is solving a specific problem, which is how do you get the message that you’re at risk and empower you to take measures to protect your friends, your family, your colleagues and the people you have been in contact with.’
NHSX has been working with Google and Apple to develop the app for both main smartphone operating systems – Android and IOS.
But the NHS app is set to use a different model to the tech giants, despite concerns raised about privacy and performance.
The NHS will use a centralised database to store users’ information and send alerts when there has been a match.
This is at odds with Apple and Google’s ‘decentralised’ approach – where the matches take place on users’ handsets.
The tech firms believe their effort provides more privacy because it limits hackers or authorities from tracking specific individuals exact footsteps.
But UK health bosses believe their centralised system will give the more insight into the spread of the virus.
‘One of the advantages is that it’s easier to audit the system and adapt it more quickly as scientific evidence accumulates,’ Professor Christophe Fraser told the BBC.
‘The principal aim is to give notifications to people who are most at risk of having got infected, and not to people who are much lower risk. It’s probably easier to do that with a centralised system.’
The centralised approach puts Britain at odds with many nations in Europe – including Switzerland, Estonia and Austria.
Germany had been using the centralised system but has since switched back to a ‘strongly decentralised approach’, the Government there announced on Sunday.
UK rejects the contact-tracing app proposed by Apple and Google in favour of a centralised tracking system – despite warnings it could be repurposed as a spying tool once the crisis is over
The UK is once again bucking the trend in its quest to conquer coronavirus as it opts not to use the framework created by Apple and Google for its NHS coronavirus contact-tracing app.
Instead, NHSX is creating a centralised version that strays from the Apple-Google model.
NHS officials hope their app will provide better insight into the spread of COVID-19 and help flatten the curve of the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
But security experts warn the method has significant privacy implications, could upset the tech firms and provide the blueprint for unethical mass surveillance once the pandemic ends.
Apple and Google, along with GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) are still assisting and advising on the app, according to reports.
The UK is once again bucking the trend in its quest to conquer coronavirus as it opts not to use the framework created by Apple and Google. NHS officials hope their method will provide better insight into the spread of COVID-19 and improve treatment and diagnostics
Battery life implications of the NHS’s decentralised NHS contact tracing coronavirus app
The system built by Apple and Google was intended to be energy efficient and it was hoped this would preserve battery life.
Apple allowed phones using its API – application programming interface – to conduct Bluetooth ‘handshakes’ in the background.
In this process, a phone regularly changes its unique ID.
The phone will also store IDs of phones it has come into contact with.
This is all done with the app lying dormant and not having to wake up.
If someone is found to have COVID-19 they would input a code into their app and this authorises the automatic dispersal of a notification to any people who may be affected.
This was all authorised by Apple and Google to streamline the process and make it as smooth a possible.
However, in the NHS’s centralised app, which goes against the grain of what Apple and Google created, the app running in the background must be ‘woke up’ every time a Bluetooth connection to another device is made. This uses energy.
Some inherent code will then run, logging the interaction and storing the appropriate IDs.
It will then go back to its dormant state.
Apple’s exchange of data via the Bluetooth ‘handshake’ is also quicker than the version being built by the NHS, further adding to the battery life disparity.
Australia appears to have avoided staying within the confines of the Google-Apple API but has acknowledged notable power consumption problems.
The Australian government has also admitted issues with the app working properly if the phone is using its Bluetooth for other purposes – such as speakers etc.
Google and Apple joined forces earlier this month and announced they were combining expertise to turn smartphones into a coronavirus-fighting resource.
The unprecedented collaboration comes from two companies that both place a high-value on the privacy of users.
As a result, their system, which was designed to work optimally on both iOS and Android, is decentralised. No movement or tracking information will be stored on a server and therefore it is invisible to Google, Apple and the NHS.
Bluetooth in a person’s phone will be used to detect when people are close enough to be considered to be interacting.
If one person develops symptoms of the coronavirus or tests positive, they will be able to enter this information into the app.
The phone will then send out a notification to all the devices it has previously come into contact with in the infection window to make people aware they may have been exposed to COVID-19.
The process is confined to the individual’s handset and the scope of the information sent to the NHS is strictly limited.
However, the method proposed by NHSX focuses on a centralised scheme.
In it, the data is still collected via Bluetooth but any interactions between people is recorded by the phone and then sent back to a server run by the NHS.
Here, all data on all movements will be kept. This level of data collection on a person’s movements is fraught with hazards, experts claim.
The NHS, unsurprisingly, is facing questions as to why it needs to develop the app in this manner when other countries are plumping for the privacy-centric alternative.
In a weekend blog post, NHSX writes: ‘The data will only ever be used for NHS care, management, evaluation and research.
‘You will always be able to delete the app and all associated data whenever you want. We will always comply with the law around the use of your data, including the Data Protection Act and will explain how we intend to use it.
‘We will be totally open and transparent about your choices in the app and what they mean.
‘If we make any changes to how the app works over time, we will explain in plain English why those changes were made and what they mean for you. Your privacy is crucial to the NHS, and so while these are unusual times, we are acutely aware of our obligations to you.’
The security and privacy issues have been sized up and balanced against potential public health benefits and the officials in charge of the UK’s coronavirus response deem the centralised app a necessary step.
The health gains they expect to come from data analysis could save lives and this, in the eyes of the health officials, outweighs any privacy quandary.
A centralised app run by the NHS with expert assistance may provide invaluable insight into how COVID-19 is spread.
Professor Christopher Fraser, one of the epidemiologists advising NHSX, explained to the BBC: ‘One of the advantages is that it’s easier to audit the system and adapt it more quickly as scientific evidence accumulates.
‘The principal aim is to give notifications to people who are most at risk of having got infected, and not to people who are much lower risk.
‘It’s probably easier to do that with a centralised system.’
At a meeting of the Science and Technology Committee held today, it was revealed the NHS app will likely be rolled out in two to three weeks, but a trial with a small amount of people in a very localised, and yet undisclosed, area will test the app first.
NHSX chief executive Matthew Gould also said talks are still being held with Google and Apple, despite the decision to move to a centralised version of the app.
Germany had previously sided with Britain and hoped to create its own centralised app. But on Sunday the German government performed a dramatic U-turn and is now heading towards a decentralised version.
It also leaves the UK at odds with Switzerland, Austria, a pan-European group called DP3T and the tech-savvy Estonians who are all backing a decentralised app, as advocated by Google and Apple.
In Europe, only France, and now Britain, have come out as supporters of a centralised system. Australia, it is believed, is also running a centralised app.
Professor Alan Woodward, from the Surrey Centre for Cyber Security at the University of Surrey mentions the fact Apple and Google do not want to assist in developing a system which effectively tracks users as it could later be adopted and tweaked to spy on people en masse.
He told PA news agency: ‘There may be some pushback, I think – the simple way to put it – because what Apple does not want is somebody building a system that could be used as a tracking system, a generalised tracking system.
‘So, repurposing the technology, later on, for example – never mind now in this emergency of the data collected – but could someone, later on, build technology along the same principles just to use Bluetooth to track people?
‘And the whole point was, iOS particularly was built, and Android’s later versions, are built so that you cannot do that.
‘They (Apple and Google) know that their customer base is global, it’s not just the US or the UK or European, it’s all over the world, so they want their users to not think that governments can somehow subvert their operating systems to become trackers.
‘So there is a bit of a danger it might get some pushback.
‘And I think, if the UK Government are going to sell this to the public, they have to have those epidemiologists, the public health people, out, front and centre, justifying why they need that data.’
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