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UK’s Covid-19 contact-tracing app risks exacerbating ‘health inequalities’

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The Government’s delayed contact-tracing app has the potential to exacerbate “health inequalities” and leave some people at greater risk of Covid-19 than others, a healthcare thinktank has said.

The Health Foundation carried out a UK-based poll of 2,000 people in which found that more than six in ten people (62 per cent) say they are likely to download the app once it is released.

However, the polling also revealed a significant 'digital divide' along the lines of occupation, educational level and age.

Almost three quarters (73 per cent) of people in managerial, administrative or professional jobs say they are likely to download the app, but among routine and manual workers, state pensioners and the unemployed, this figure falls to just 50 per cent.

The survey also revealed that 71 per cent of those with a degree say they are likely to download the app, but this falls to 63 per cent for those with A-levels or equivalent only; 59 per cent for those with GCSEs or equivalent, and 38 per cent among those with no formal qualifications.

Figures from The Office for National Statistics reported in 2019 show that around 79 per cent of UK adults own a smartphone. While 100 per cent of 16-24-year-olds have Internet access via a smartphone, just 40 per cent of those aged 65+ have the same access.

The Health Foundation said that it was concerned that those without the app could miss out on up-to-date information about their risk of infection from contact with others.

It also raised concerns about “false alerts” from the app, saying that some groups would suffer “unintended consequences” if they received such an alert.

Adam Steventon, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation, said: “The NHS contact-tracing app could play a critical role in the fight against Covid-19, expanding the number of people who are traced and speeding up the process. With a virus that is transmitted as quickly as coronavirus, this kind of instant contact tracing could prove invaluable.

“There’s a significant risk that many will be left behind. The impact of Covid-19 is already being felt unequally across society and appears to be having a disproportionate impact on people living in more deprived areas, older people and some ethnic minorities.

“Within that context, it’s especially concerning that people in lower-paid jobs and those with less formal education say they are less likely to download and use the app and of course not everyone has a smartphone.

“NHSX must ensure that the benefits of the app are experienced by the communities who need these the most, while ensuring that the potential negative consequences of the app, such as false alerts, do not fall on those least able to withstand them.

“It is also vital that those who do not have access to the app are protected as a priority by the Government’s wider Test and Trace system and that a more comprehensive strategy to tackle health inequalities is put in place.”

Last month, a separate survey found that nearly half (48 per cent) of the British public do not trust that the new tracing app will keep their data safe from hackers. 

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