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Isle of Wight divided over being ‘guinea pigs’ for NHS app

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Isle of Wight residents have expressed mixed feelings about being “guinea pigs” for the UK’s contract-tracing app, designed to reduce the transmission rate of Covid-19.

The app launched on a trial basis for some key workers on the island yesterday, with a rollout expanded to all residents tomorrow. The Health Secretary Matt Hancock has urged residents on the island not to relax social distancing measures despite its rollout.

A nurse living on the island whose wife is seriously ill with Covid-19, told the PA news agency he intends to download the app “in the absence of an alternative” but worries it could prove a gimmick: “The idea of using technology to support public health is an excellent idea,” he said. “The issue for me isn’t about privacy – what good is that if we’re bankrupt or dead? It’s about effectiveness and competence.”

The nurse said the NHS “doesn’t have a strong history” of effective IT systems, noting that his own practice still uses paper records, referrals and clinical requests.

He said he also feels the Government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has been incompetent and many decisions have been “political” or for public image.

“I think this government wants to stamp a ‘made in Britain’ sticker on a final success,” he said. “My wife has been seriously ill with Covid. We were tested on Friday and still don’t have the results. This is because the Government wanted to get that 100,000 headline, but didn’t have the capacity to actually do the testing. Our test results are thus now obsolete and out of date.”

“The app needs to be part of an effective strategy, otherwise it’s a gimmick.”

Unlike many European countries, the UK has elected to adopt a centralised model for its app where data is stored and operations are performed on a central server, rather than on individuals’ phones. Groups like Amnesty International have raised concerns that such an approach opens the door to “pervasive state surveillance and privacy infringement”.

Shaun Davis from Newport told PA he is “all for” the app and felt there has generally been “a lot of positivity” locally.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and all going well will lead to the eventual easing of lockdown and strict social distancing,” he said. “I had to chuckle at Matt Hancock’s comment, ‘where the Isle of Wight leads, the rest of Britain will follow’, because it has been joked that the Isle of Wight has always been a generation behind the rest of the country – so there’s a first for everything!”

Davis, who works for a wholesaler providing materials to organisations including the NHS and Ministry of Defence, said he does not share other people’s data security concerns: “Smartphones are traceable even without the app [...] we have to do something – the virus isn’t going anywhere and we can’t all remain in our homes indefinitely,” he said.

But local parish councillor Daryll Pitcher, who says he is also the Covid-19 response coordinator for the island’s Wootton village, did not welcome the opportunity to become a “guinea pig”, and doesn’t intend to download the app.

“I am greatly concerned that this trial has been imposed on the Isle of Wight and I believe that the final say should have been local,” he said. “Can you imagine the reaction if they had tried to impose this on Scotland?”

Pitcher, a former UKIP parliamentary candidate for the Isle of Wight in 2017 and 2019, also said he has concerns regarding his civil liberties and data security.

He said he feels the island “is not a suitable testing area” due to its demographics and geography, both of which vary from the UK’s national average: “There is no point testing in an area you can be reasonably certain it will never work,” he added.

Australia rolled out its Covidsafe app last month to all citizens. It has picked up five million downloads (around a fifth of its population) although privacy and technical concerns are still prevalent as they are in the UK.

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