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France’s StopCovid app to begin testing before wider rollout

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France’s coronavirus contact tracing app is expected to begin testing next week before its wider rollout to citizens, a minister has said.

While acknowledging that the 'StopCovid' app is only one part of a “more global deconfinement health strategy”, Cédric O, minister for Digital Affairs, said it would be a vital tool to health services struggling to carry out effective contact tracing in densely populated areas.

While surveys conducted on infected patients to determine who they have been in contact with are still useful, many will unwittingly have come into contact with members of the public they do not know. StopCovid is designed to track these interactions.

“There’s nothing magical about this app, but it’s not technological coquetry either,” O wrote on online publishing platform Medium. “It’s only useful if it’s integrated into a global health system.”

He said there was still significant technical work that still needed to be carried out by teams working at Inria, France’s national computer science research body. O also anticipates that the app will see usage amongst the general population until a Covid-19 vaccine has been developed.

It is thought that around 60 per cent of the general population will need to download the app for it to be significantly effective in curbing the spread.

Conveniently, the most densely populated cities in France also tend to have the highest smartphone ownership amongst the population, raising hope that StopCovid could be particularly effective in these hotspots.

In his post, O tried to dispel concerns over the privacy implications of the app, saying explicitly that it is “not a monitoring application”.

Users are able to declare themselves positive for the virus, at which point others who also have the app installed will be notified. They can then make the decision about whether or not they want to contact local health services.

“The architecture of the system is designed in such a way that no one, not even the State, has access either to the list of infected persons or to the 'graph' of social interactions,” O said. The app also does not collect any personal information from users.

The UK has been developing its own app, with testing soon to begin on the Isle of Wight. The NHSX app will use Bluetooth technology to determine when other app users are in close enough proximity to potentially spread the virus.

The data is recorded under an anonymous ID, rather than by the person’s name and - similar to the French system - users will be able to self-report if they believe they have the virus.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “The idea is that we will encourage as many people to take this up as possible. This is going to be a huge national effort and we need - for this to work - 50 to 60 per cent of people to be using this app.

“Not everybody has a smartphone and I appreciate that for various reasons not everybody will download it, but it will be the best possible way to help the NHS.”

Shapps stressed that the app will be completely confidential.

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