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Scotland launches contact tracing app

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The Scottish government has launched a contact tracing app, which it hopes will help control the transmission of Covid-19.

From today, the 'Protect Scotland' app is available for both Android and iOS. The app is compatible with the iPhone 6S and above and Android 6.0 and above.

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, contact tracing involves identifying the contacts of a person who has tested positive for Covid-19. These contacts are then notified so they can take appropriate action, such as getting a test or going into self-isolation. Contact tracing apps could help scale up this process by maintaining a list of individuals’ close contacts (typically detected via Bluetooth), who can be automatically notified when they may have been exposed to the virus.

The Scottish government’s app, Protect Scotland, uses Bluetooth to detect close contacts (people who have been within 2m for at least 15 minutes). When an individual tests positive for Covid-19, they are contacted by phone to check if they are an app user and, if so, if they consent to their positive test being anonymously shared with their recent contacts.

The Scottish government described the app as an “extra tool complementing existing person-to-person contact tracing”.

“The launch of the app is a welcome development which will offer an additional level of protection, supporting NHS Scotland’s Test and Protect system as it works to drive down the spread of Covid-19 across the country,” said Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First Minister.

“I would encourage everyone to download the free app if they have a compatible smartphone and help slow the spread of Covid-19. This will support the work of NHS Scotland and has the potential to help avoid local lockdowns. We know that not everyone uses a smartphone or will be able to or want to access the app, which is why this software is very much there to complement existing contact tracing methods.”

The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have already rolled out compatible contact tracing apps based on the work of the same developer, NearForm, which developed Protect Scotland. Crucially, Ireland and Northern Ireland have agreed to share databases of positive Covid-19 cases.

Cian Ó Maidín, CEO of NearForm, commented: “We’re delighted to partner with NHS Scotland on the Protect Scotland app which puts power in citizens’ pockets to join the fight against Covid-19. This open source-technology was built with privacy and data protection at its core and, through anonymous keys, allows Scottish citizens to engage, protect each other and break transmission chains. The Scottish government has taken a great approach, using open-source software, that has been peer reviewed and rolled out successfully in Ireland and Northern Ireland.”

England still has not launched its own, long-awaited, contact tracing app. Following intense criticism from data privacy advocates, academics and lawmakers, the government was forced to make a U-turn from its preferred centralised model to a more privacy-conscious decentralised model for the app. In recent months, the government has played down the significance of an app within its 'Test and Trace' system.

Meanwhile, the Singaporean government has started to distribute wearable devices to every citizen. The devices will store a record of close contacts for up to 25 days, which can only be extracted when the device is physically handed over to a health official. The devices are intended to complement its 'TraceTogether' app, which was among the first in the world to launch.

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