Wednesday 1 April 2020 3:56 pm

Government set to launch coronavirus ‘contact tracking’ app

The government is gearing up to launch a new app that will alert users if they have come too close to someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.

The contact tracking app, which Brits can download on a voluntary basis, will be rolled out either just before or just after the lockdown is lifted, Sky News reported, citing people with knowledge of the matter.

The project is being led by NHSX — a joint digital unit led by NHS England and the Department for Health and Social Care — which is said to have recently finalised details for the app.

NHS bosses hope the app will be used by at least 50 per cent of the population, as a critical mass is required for the technology to work effectively.

The app uses Bluetooth signals to detect and then store a record of nearby phones.

If someone tests positive for Covid-19 they can record this on the app, which in turn will alert people who have been in close contact.

It is thought there will be a delay between initial contact and the alert to ensure the individual was not identified.

But the move has still sparked concerns around privacy and data protection.

In an open letter published last week a group describing themselves as “responsible technologists” urged the NHS not to “cut ethical corners” in their efforts to innovate quickly in response to coronavirus.

They warned that location and contact tracking “could be used as a means of social control”.

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “A lot of knee-jerk responses to this crisis have turned to mass surveillance and even citizen surveillance approaches which often lack an evidence base, whilst creating a more monitored society in the long-term. 

“It is exceptionally difficult to anonymise location data. Medical confidentiality is paramount to enable people to access services and protect both their own and public health.”

NHSX is reportedly planning to appoint an ethics board that will oversee the project, with board members set to be identified in the coming weeks.

Development of the app has now been taken over by Pivotal, a subsidiary of US software giant VMware, Sky News reported.

The technology would mirror that used in Singapore, where government app Trace Together — which has been downloaded more than 800,000 times — has helped to stop the spread of the virus.

An even more intrusive approach has been taken in South Korea, where a central tracking app informs people of known cases within a 100m radius of their location.

Earlier this month City A.M. revealed that the government had approached the UK’s mobile operators about using phone signals to track the spread of the virus.

NHSX has been contacted for comment.