Coronavirus: New version of contact-tracing app to be piloted in England

Coronavirus: New version of contact-tracing app to be piloted in England

Coronavirus: New version of contact-tracing app to be piloted in England

An updated version of the government’s troubled coronavirus contact-tracing app is to be piloted in England.

Thousands of NHS volunteer responders and people living on the Isle of Wight will be able to try out the app from Thursday while residents in the London borough of Newham will get the chance to download the app from next week.

No date has been set for when the contact-tracing app will be rolled out nationally.

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The technology has been delayed for months after the government was forced to abandon plans to develop its own software that would have stored user data centrally. The new version of the app uses software from Apple and Google with data kept anonymously and not shared with the government.

Developers have run more than 100,000 tests using Bluetooth technology to enable the app to detect other phones nearby and to determine whether people have been within two metres of each other for longer than 15 minutes.

These simulations found the app successfully identified a close contact in almost seven out of 10 cases, but a false positive rate meant 45 per cent, or just over four out of 10 people, would be incorrectly considered a close contact by the app.

However, these people may still be at risk as they spent time near an infected person.

The app had a 99 per cent success rate of detecting either an Android or Apple smartphone.

Using the Bluetooth technology drains around 2 to 3 per cent of a phone’s battery per day and users can turn off contact tracing at any stage.

The new version of the app also has extra functions, which include a postcode check for people to see the prevalence of the virus in their neighbourhood, the ability to scan special test and trace QR codes in venues like pubs and hair salons that can then be used to alert app users if they have been somewhere during an outbreak.

The app will also have a symptom checker and link users to the test and trace service so they can get a test and they will receive isolation advice and a countdown to show how many days of quarantine they have left.

Ministers hope the app will enhance the test and trace service, which has struggled to reach close contacts of people who tested positive for the virus, but officials have emphasised the technology is not a silver bullet against coronavirus and will only work if enough people download it.

The app will help tackle the persistent problem of how to identify and reach unknown close contacts of an infected person. In the most recent week’s data, the test and trace service failed to reach 40 per cent of close contacts in cases handled by its call centre staff.

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Adam Steventon, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation, said: “Covid-19 is taking a disproportionate toll on older people, people from specific black and minority ethnic groups and those who live in poorer areas. The government must ensure the redesigned app works for these hardest-hit groups.

“Testing the app among different populations is an important step. The inclusion of the London Borough of Newham in the trial is very welcome. It is one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the country, has a high population density and has significant areas of deprivation. Hopefully this trial will go some way to improving confidence among those people hardest hit by the pandemic that the app will help protect them and their communities.”

The Health Foundation said it was important the trials were properly evaluated and findings made public.

Simon Thompson, managing director of the NHS Test and Trace app, said: “Test and trace is vital to controlling the spread of coronavirus and this app is designed to give people maximum freedom at minimum risk.

“We have worked with some of the most innovative organisations in the world, such as Apple, Google, scientists from the Alan Turing Institute and Oxford University and governments across the world to come up with a state-of-the-art product which works to protect people every day. It’s like NHS Test and Trace in your pocket.

“By giving access to the Isle of Wight, Newham and NHS volunteers first we can make this app even better before rolling out nationwide so the rest of the nation can benefit.”

Northern Ireland has already launched its own app, while Scotland is expected to have one by autumn.

“There is no silver bullet when it comes to tackling coronavirus,” said Baroness Dido Harding, executive chair of the test and trace service.

“The app is a great step forward and will complement all of the work we are doing with local areas across the country to reach more people in their communities and work towards our vision of helping more people get back to the most normal life possible at the lowest risk.”

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