The UK public will soon be able to find out if they may have been in the vicinity of people unwell with coronavirus via a new contact-tracing app, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has said.
At No 10’s daily press conference, Hancock said the NHS app would allow people to report their symptoms, and then the app would anonymously alert other app users that had been in contact with that person in recent days.
The Guardian reported last week that the app, developed by NHSX – the health service’s digital transformation arm – with academic and industry partners, is in the advanced stages of evaluation and is weeks away from being ready to be deployed.
Around 60% of the adult population would need to sign up and engage with the app by registering their symptoms or positive test results for it to be effective. Their proximity to other users would be logged, and they would follow advice given in alerts to self-isolate – even in cases where they were not aware of having been in contact with someone infected.
Hancock told the press conference: “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.”
There have been concerns about privacy given the app would track people’s movements and their contacts. But Hancock said: “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.”
Digital contact tracing has been a central part of the containment strategy in China and other countries attempting to suppress new outbreaks of the virus. It is considered to be one of the ways that the UK could gradually leave its state of lockdown, if people are told to isolate immediately after coming into contact with those who are unwell so that they avoid potentially passing it on even if symptomless.