As COVID-19 deaths leap, UK mulls use of contact tracing app

Scientists have urged the UK government to deploy an app that alerts people who have been in contact with someone infected with coronavirus, after the daily death toll from COVID-19 topped 500 for a second day.

The Oxford University team says that the SARS-CoV-2 virus causing the pandemic spreads too quickly to allow control using a manual, interview-based contact tracing technique, so an automated digital approach is needed.

Writing in the journal Science, they suggest that a mobile app that builds a temporary record of when people come into close proximity could be used to alert close contacts of diagnosed cases and prompt them to self-isolate, curbing the spread of the virus.

Using the app could cut the contact tracing process down from a week to a near-instantaneous notification, according to Prof Christopher Fraser of the Oxford Big Data Institute, one of the authors of the paper.

That could curb the spread of the epidemic and potentially even send it into reverse, maintaining long-term control, he told the BBC, providing enough people in a population use the app. That means more than half the UK population would have to have it installed.

The NHS’ digital division NHSX is reported to be looking into the idea, and Fraser said feasibility studies have been completed on an app that could potentially be rolled out within weeks.

It’s not a new idea, as apps of this nature have been used elsewhere, but the Oxford team’s modelling is the first to gauge the possible impact on the coronavirus spread.

One platform – a plug-in for the WeChat and Alipay apps – was deployed during the coronavirus outbreak by public health officials in China, with a similar system used in South Korea.

Both seem to have had an impact on SARS-CoV-2 spread, but have led to some kickback on issues like data protection and privacy. In China the app wasn’t compulsory, but was required to move between quarters and into public spaces and public transport.

While privacy is clearly an issue, Fraser pointed out that the proposed app would actually track people less than map software that is already running on most people’s phones. Google Maps for example can provide real-time updates on traffic conditions because individuals have consented for their devices to be tracked.

“It does require large-scale adoption and acceptance that a degree of data-sharing between individuals – in the context of the NHS – could result in large reductions in infection,” he told the BBC’s Today programme this morning.

“What it’s trying to do is to make sure that only people at greatest risk are self-isolating, and allow a greater degree of freedom for other people to resume activities.”

It could be used in combination with other measures to help countries move out of lockdown whilst reducing the risk that the virus could bounce back, he added.

As of 5pm yesterday there had been 2,352 deaths from COVID-19 in the UK – 563 in the prior 4 hours – as the number of confirmed cases of infection worldwide tracked up towards the 1 million mark.

There is growing concern in several countries about supplies of protection equipment for medical workers, and the UK government is coming under fire for not doing enough to diagnose infections, amid reports only 2,000 out of half a million frontline NHS staff have so far been tested.

The government says there are currently around 13,000 tests available each day against a target of 25,000, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson – still self-isolating after contracting the virus – has admitted the UK has to “massively ramp up” testing.

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