As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to affect the lives of millions around the world, the NHS is working on a mobile app to track whether people have come in to contact with someone infected by the virus.
Developed by the digital innovation unit of the National Health Service, NHSX, this mobile application will alert users who have been in contact with someone experiencing symptoms or who has tested positive for the virus.
Users can opt-in to record their symptoms to determine whether they may be suffering with the virus, and if believed to be infected, those who have been in close contact will receive a yellow alert.
If that individual later tests positive, all those who have been in contact with them will receive a red alert with guidelines on how to protect themselves and others by isolating at home or by seeking further medical advice.
Upon receiving a positive testing, the patient will receive a verification code to enter into the app to ensure results are genuine and alerts are not sent out unnecessarily. Therefore, anyone who receives a red alert should take immediate action to avoid further contamination. The app may also be used to alert those with second-level contact if it is determined that they are at risk.
The app tracks people’s proximity by using Bluetooth Low Energy to communicate with other mobile phones running the app, with data stored securely on each individual’s phone. When registered as suffering with symptoms, information is transferred anonymously and no identifying data is transmitted, ensuring complete anonymity.
Medical researchers at the University of Oxford have been modelling the effectivity of this kind of app for monitoring and controlling the spread of the virus. Their findings are enabling several international partners to rapidly develop tracing apps with the aim of significantly allowing the rate of coronavirus transmission. These agencies include the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (FHI) and the NHSX.
Other countries, including India and Australia, have already launched contact-tracing apps. However, downloads are not as widespread as hoped. Singapore was the first to launch a mobile application of this kind, TraceTogether, but has found the effectivity is lower than anticipated as it relies on a majority of mobile users downloading and using the app effectively. The proximity tracking also does not work if Bluetooth connection is disabled. The Singaporean government released this video to encourage citizens to download the TraceTogether app and explain the importance.
It is expected that 80% of all smartphone users – 80% of the UK’s population – would have to download the app for maximum effect. To compare, around 67% of users have downloaded the widely popular messaging app WhatsApp, which was the most downloaded UK iPhone application of 2019. Some countries have also made use of Bluetooth-enabled wristbands for those without smartphones, a move which may be replicated in the UK.
The UK’s application entered alpha testing last week at an RAF base. RAF Leeming was chosen for early testing of the app as it has had experience with testing new technologies and protocols for the government as part of the RAFX unit. By simulating a supermarket environment and later recording one user as infected, the app sent alerts to those who has been in close contact with the infected user to inform those at risk to take further measures to protect themselves and those around them.
Over 300 people living on the base, including serving personnel and members of their families, have the app downloaded to their phones, with some scenarios having to be simulated for better modelling while still maintaining social distancing. For example, a cluster of phones were placed on a table to simulate a crowd of shoppers, with people walking past to test whether the Bluetooth Low Energy detected their close proximity.
“The Royal Air Force is doing everything it can to support the NHS and with the help of RAFX and the personnel at RAF Leeming we have provided the perfect testing ground for projects such as this.“
“All of our participants were volunteers and spanned the Service, Reservist, Civil Service, Contractor and Dependent communities here on station, and we are delighted that the results have helped the NHS in their drive to develop an application to assist in tracking any spread of the virus.”Group Captain Blythe Crawford
RAF Leeming Station Commander
The app is expected to be available from mid-May, though the government is yet to release further details about the distribution of the app and specific features. NHSX and the government are focussed on security and are making every effort to ensure that this app is not only effective in slowing the spread of Covid-19, but also keeps user’s personal data secure. They are investigating the possibility of tracking app user’s location to help with contact tracing, but are aware that many individuals may not want this information shared. This option is therefore likely to be optional, but encouraged.
Contact tracing is traditionally carried out through personal surveys and phone calls to those who have been in contact with an infected individual. The government released details this week about a new 18,000 strong taskforce who will focus on this kind of movement tracking which will be supported by the mobile app.
Countries like South Korea curbed their infection rate by tracking credit card transactions, mobile phone locations and CCTV footage, along with restricting citizen’s movements, to trace the movements of those with the coronavirus and find those who have been in a close proximity. The UK government does not want to track it’s people to that extent, but will work to limit the spread of the virus while respecting privacy.