Hancock confirms contact tracing app

Matt Hancock has today confirmed a new app for contact tracing to support measures to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Should you get symptoms, then it could anonymously alert anyone you may have been in close contact with and then advise them to self-isolate.

Hancock said “As we ramp up our abilities to test in large numbers we also need to make sure we have the ability to make sure we can trace contact just as effectively.”

“Today I wanted to outline the next step: a new NHS app for contact tracing. If you become unwell with the symptoms of coronavirus, you can securely tell this new NHS app and the app will then send an alert anonymously to other app users that you’ve been in significant contact with over the past few days, even before you had symptoms, so that they know and can act accordingly.”

“All data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards, and would only be used for NHS care and research, and we won’t hold it any longer than it’s needed.”

“And as part of our commitment to transparency we’ll be publishing the source code, too.”

“We’re already testing this app and as we do this we’re working closely with the world’s leading tech companies and renowned experts in digital safety and ethics.”

Similar technology was launched in Singapore, The TraceTogether app, over 3 weeks ago. It works by exchanging Bluetooth signals between phones to detect other participating users. It means authorities can track who has been exposed to people infected, and people showing signs of symptoms can input into the app.

In China, a health app is being used to control citizen movement following the recent actions to relax their lockdown measures.

The announcement from Hancock follows a team of medical researchers and bioethicists at University of Oxford publishing results in Science that furthers understanding of coronavirus transmission.

Professor Christophe Fraser from Oxford University’s Big Data Institute, Nuffield Department of Medicine, a lead author on the Science paper said “We need a mobile contact tracing app to urgently support health services to control coronavirus transmission, target interventions and keep people safe.”

“Our analysis suggests that about half of transmissions occur in the early phase of the infection, before you show any symptoms of infection.”

“Our mathematical models also highlight that traditional public health contact tracing approaches provide incomplete data and cannot keep up with the pace of this pandemic.”

Dr David Bonsall, senior researcher at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Medicine said “The mobile app concept we’ve mathematically modelled is simple and doesn’t need to track your location; it uses a low-energy version of Bluetooth to log a memory of all the app users with whom you have come into close proximity over the last few days.”

“If you then become infected, these people are alerted instantly and anonymously, and advised to go home and self-isolate.”

“If app users decide to share additional data, they could support health services to identify trends and target interventions to reach those most in need.”

On Friday Apple and Google announced a joint effort to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies.

The two are working on an API to make it easier for governments across the world to build contact tracing apps. It means that government organisations can monitor signals even when the app is not active.