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Covid-19 contact tracing app effectiveness questioned one day before launch

The Government should be more transparent about the effectiveness of its Covid-19 contact tracing app, which is due to launch in the UK tomorrow, the Health Foundation has said.

The new app has been in development for several months after the first version was scrapped in May over doubts that it would work effectively on all devices.

Earlier this month it was confirmed that the new version will launch tomorrow after tests were carried out on the Isle of Wight and in the London Borough of Newham.

 

But the Health Foundation said the public have yet to see the results of these trials and that the Government should show that the app is effective in order to build public confidence in its use. Furthermore, it needs to be demonstrated that the technology won’t exacerbate existing health inequalities, leaving some people at greater risk of Covid-19 than others.

The Foundation has previously warned of the potential negative impact of a ‘digital divide’ as those without access to the app will not receive the same level of benefit in terms of up-to-date information about their risk of infection from contact with others.

Newham, one of the two pilot sites, is one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the country and has both a high population density and significant areas of deprivation.

Piloting the app in Newham was an opportunity to understand how it works among different populations, the Foundation said, but without publication of any findings from the pilot study, we are yet to learn whether these major concerns have been addressed.

In a study carried out by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Foundation, it was found that participants from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background, women, the youngest and oldest age groups, routine and skilled manual workers, and the unemployed, had a lower awareness of the Government plans to use a smartphone contact-tracing app.

The polling also showed that a higher proportion of adults in professional, administrative and management roles say they are likely to download it and use it to report symptoms or self-isolate if it is recommended.

Younger people (18–24) are more likely to say they would download the app, use the app or self-isolate based on its advice, while the oldest age groups (65+) are the least likely to do so.

Josh Keith, a senior fellow at the Health Foundation, said: “With a virus that is transmitted as quickly as Covid-19, the automated contact tracing that the app promises could prove invaluable in reducing its spread.

“Also, the additional features of the app, such as booking a test, reporting symptoms or checking the risk level in postcode district could provide a helpful single source of Covid-19 related advice and support.

“However, for any major nationwide public health intervention it is important the government publishes evidence that it is effective and ready for mass roll-out in advance of its launch.

“This is key for building confidence in the app, as people will want to know that it will benefit them and their communities. But any data on the pilots that took place in August have been notably absent, leaving major questions over the app’s effectiveness unanswered.”

While England and Wales are getting the new app tomorrow, both Northern Ireland and Scotland have already launched their own contact-tracing apps. 

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