Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab speaks during a daily digital news conference on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at 10 Downing Street in London, Britain April 22, 2020

Contact tracing app to be accepted by public in ‘exceptional crisis’, says ministers

Image credit: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/Handout via REUTERS

Ministers believe that the British public will accept the invasion of privacy entailed by a smartphone app which can trace their movements as part of the plan to ease the coronavirus lockdown.

According to health secretary Matt Hancock, the Government will begin to introduce contact tracing at a “large scale” as a way of easing lockdown restrictions. This followed after he told MPs that the UK had “reached the peak” of its Covid-19 outbreak.

The NHS app, currently being developed, could identify people who have been in proximity to a smartphone user who subsequently developed coronavirus symptoms and advises them to self-isolate. This would potentially allow more targeted quarantine measures than the blanket lockdown which is currently in place across the country.

When asked about privacy concerns surrounding the app’s future roll-out, first secretary of state Dominic Raab said the Government was trying to “innovate the best we can to try and ease our way out of the next phase of this virus in a way that protects public health and also allows us to go back to an economic and social life as close to normal as possible”.

He added: “I think people do understand that we’re in an exceptional crisis and we need to take measures which we probably wouldn’t think of doing if we weren’t in this crisis.”

Meanwhile, Hancock said he was confident that the country was at its peak in the crisis. However, he stressed that continued social distancing was needed to bring the number of new cases down.

The Cabinet minister told MPs that trials of the app were “going well” and said he was hopeful that, along with increased contact tracing, it would allow the country to “control the virus with fewer of the extraordinary social distancing measures” that are currently in place across the UK.

According to a report by the BBC, testing of the new technology was being carried out at RAF Leeming, North Yorkshire.

The BBC report said the app currently tells users: “You need to isolate yourself and stay at home” if they are deemed to be showing symptoms or have come into close contact with another app user who has Covid-19 symptoms. It uses Bluetooth technology to determine proximity to those who might have contracted coronavirus.

The on-screen warning for those deemed to be at risk states: “If you’re on public transport, go home by the most direct route, stay at least 2m away from people if you can… find a room where you can close the door (and) avoid touching people, surfaces and objects.”

Scientific experts and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt have pressed the Government for more details on mass testing and contact tracing, which is a key route out of the UK lockdown. By finding those who are infected with coronavirus and tracing their contacts – and isolating both – routes of onward transmission of Covid-19 can be slowed until a vaccine is found.

Hancock said the Government as working “closely with some of the best digital and technological brains” on the contact tracing app. “The more people who sign up for this new app when it goes live, the better informed our response will be, and the better we can, therefore, protect the NHS,” he said.

Meanwhile in the US, senator Edward Markey, a Democrat and online privacy advocate, said in a letter released on Wednesday (April 22) that any digital coronavirus contact tracing should be voluntary, transparent and collect only the information needed to identify who might be at risk of contracting the respiratory ailment that has already killed over 45,000 people in the US.

Markey urged the Trump administration to balance public health needs - as individual states seek to allow businesses to reopen their doors - with the privacy rights of individuals who may be monitored. “The federal government must provide leadership, coordination and guidance to ensure that contact tracing efforts are effective and do not infringe upon individuals’ civil liberties, including the right to privacy,” Markey wrote in a letter to vice president Mike Pence.

Markey said that any contact tracing should be limited to that which is needed to track disease exposure; should include investment in public health, and be voluntary, subject to enforceable rules and transparent about what data is collected and what happens to it. He also urged that a minimum of data be collected and that it be kept securely and ultimately discarded in a timely fashion.

Alphabet’s Google and Apple announced recently that the two companies were collaborating on technology to create smartphone apps that would help identify people who have crossed paths with a contagious person and alert them.

Many countries are currently in the process of developing contact tracing apps in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and as a possible way to help end lockdowns sooner. The technology is already being seen in some places, such as Singapore.

The European Union (EU) has drawn up common rules for mobile apps used to track the spread of coronavirus and aims to make better use of the technology, as well as addressing privacy concerns.

Meanwhile, experts at Imperial College London have posed eight privacy questions which governments around the world should consider when developing coronavirus contact tracing apps.

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