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NHSX, the UK National Health Service’s digital innovation unit, is pressing on with tests of a Covid-19 contact-tracing app and has revealed the latest stages in its development.
In a speech to the UK Parliament on 22 April, health minister Matt Hancock announced that the government would introduce large-scale contact-tracing once the number of new cases of the coronavirus falls. “As we have reached the peak, as we bring the number of new cases down, so we will introduce contact tracing at large scale,” he said, noting the development of a new NHS app to facilitate this.
“The more people who sign up for this new app when it goes live, the better informed our response will be and the better we can therefore protect the NHS,” he added.
The BBC has revealed that NHSX has enlisted the services of the Royal Air Force to test the contact-tracing app at one of its bases at Leeming, North Yorkshire. The smartphone app works by using Bluetooth wireless technology to alert users who are close to someone who has tested positive for, or who has symptoms of, the coronavirus. The app has two states – telling users they they are OK or that they need to isolate themselves and stay at home.
The BBC reported that RAF Leeming was chosen to host the trial of an early alpha version of the software because it has past experience of testing apps and other new processes on behalf of the military. It set up a scenario designed to simulate people’s experience of going shopping, using Bluetooth LE (low energy) signals to log when two phones were near to each other.
The BBC said there are plans for a more realistic follow-up beta test at a later date – possibly in a remote community, where its use would be voluntary – and that the NHS hopes to release the app by mid-May.
Before it announced details of the trial, NHSX was keen to point out that at a critical time in which apps were being built and scaled at pace, it was as important as ever to undertake assessments to ensure they were safe to use. The assessment process reviews the safety and security of apps and checks that an app does what it says it does.
NHSX stressed that it was fast-tracking assessments with existing standards to ensure it could get the apps out to those who need them. It was also providing additional support to developers through the process, with a number of key areas of focus – clinical safety, data protection and security.
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NHSX chief executive Matthew Gould said work would be carried out in a privacy-friendly and ethical way. “We have worked with the Information Commissioner’s Office, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, and others, to ensure anything we do gives confidence to the public,” he said. “The app would store anonymous proximity information securely on your phone and will only share that information with the NHS when you allow it to.
“The data will only ever be used in the interests of providing care, public health management and relevant research. Users will always have the right to delete the app, and their data.”
However, mobile technology experts have already cast doubt on the effectiveness of the UK’s contact-tracing strategy. The Ada Lovelace Institute has argued that NHS Covid-19 tracking plans will not be effective unless action is taken to address technical limitations, and says that, to date, it has seen no evidence to support the immediate deployment of digital contact tracing or immunity certification.