Normality was – frustratingly – within reach.
For months, infection rates fell and the pandemic seemed to be behind us.
But just weeks after millions of children returned to classrooms, and offices around the country began to fill up again, we’re now slipping backwards.
Corona cases are said to be doubling every week, hospital admissions are creeping up, and on Friday the mothballed Nightingale hospitals – designed to handle the tsunami of cases that never quite materialised in April – were put back on standby.
And with experts warning last week it was ‘impossible’ to say when a vaccine would be ready, it seems ever more likely that we’re set for a Christmas like no other – for all the wrong reasons.
Except, according to a small army of British tech companies, there is another way.
British tech companies say the solution to rising Covid-19 cases lies in a simple-to-use smartphone app that will prove our ‘Covid status’ – whether we have the virus or not. Pictured: File image
They say the solution lies in a simple-to-use smartphone app that will prove our ‘Covid status’ – whether we have the virus or not.
This, it is claimed, would help unlock society as we used to know it, allowing safe entry to pubs, restaurants, sports stadiums and even flights. If, of course, your result is negative.
As the CEO of one UK company said: ‘We need ID to get into buildings, so why not for health data?’
The gist is this: if such a system is rolled out, establishments can ‘opt in’ and require individuals to have a test prior to visiting – either via the Government testing programme, or a private one provided by the app company.
‘Some firms claim they would be able to offer 20 million test results per month, with results given in just 15 minutes per test – so no need to put excess pressure on the NHS Test and Trace system.
Once results are in, they’re entered into a national database. This then syncs with the smartphone app, resulting in a colour-coded score card, displayed on an individual’s phone. Green indicates a negative result while red spells positive.
Amber means you’re ‘overdue’ for a test. In theory the system would lead to guaranteed Covid-free environments.
This, it is claimed, would help unlock society as we used to know it, allowing safe entry to pubs, restaurants, sports stadiums and even flights. If, of course, your result is negative. Pictured: File image
Holidays abroad, weddings with hundreds of guests and sell-out concerts would no longer be off the table. These so-called ‘health passports’ are already big business, with a number of tech firms already jostling for control of the market.
There are even signs that the UK Government might be interested.
Back in April, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said ministers were ‘looking at’ a similar concept, which he dubbed ‘immunity passports’, as a means of ‘returning to normal life’.
More recently, Prime Minister Boris Johnson too has mentioned that identifying those who are negative could be key to helping millions resume normal life.
And just last week a prototype of the ‘VHealth Passport’ was pitched to No 10, as a way in which sports stadiums could safely open.
According to Manchester-based company VST Enterprises, its ‘VHealth Passport’ will enable the eventual opening of sports stadiums – at full capacity.
Another app, developed by UK software developers Onfido, uses facial recognition scans to accurately match test results to an individual – ensuring no one cheats the system.
Meanwhile, a health passport made by Irish-based company ROQU, which also offers 15-minute tests, is being used to conduct the first post-Covid music festival in Ireland next month, given the green light by the Irish government and to be attended by thousands. But what do the experts say?
Put simply, they are highly sceptical. Firstly, a negative test result can’t guarantee an individual is Covid-free, according to Jon Deeks, Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Birmingham.
He says: ‘Even if a test claims to be 99 per cent accurate, there are a million variables that could result in someone testing negative who is in fact infected. For instance, if the test is incorrectly carried out.
‘And people can test negative on a Thursday and then be positive on a Friday, because the virus can be in your system for a number of days before it is detected. Our research shows this happens at least one in ten times when people are tested.’
Jackie Casell, Professor of Public Health at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, agrees: ‘The issue of false negatives isn’t going to change. Unless people are vaccinated this poses a huge risk and could lead to people to disregard the official Government testing and tracking system, leading to even more infections.’
There is also an issue of false, or weak positive results. Some studies suggest Covid tests can pick up remnants of the virus up to 80 days after exposure – long after a person has ceased to be infectious.
Many experts have also voiced privacy concerns – we would be entrusting these private firms with our personal health data. Silkie Carlo, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: ‘It is deeply sinister.’ She warns of a ‘health apartheid’, in which companies presume every user is sick until they can access a test and prove otherwise.
The concept also relies on people owning a smartphone – excluding one in five Britons over the age of 55, according to polling website Statista.
Then there’s the number of younger people who don’t have access to them, many of whom simply can’t afford them.
Carlo says health passports would restrict the movement of these vulnerable groups, which is fundamentally unethical.
She adds: ‘Once we all have the app, will companies want to move on to providing ‘passports’ for more serious diseases? Imagine if you had to have an HIV test to go to a football match?’
VST Enterprises boss Louis-James Davis admits: ‘In the future it could be used to show whether or not someone’s had their MMR vaccine, for instance.’
As for security concerns, Onfido chief Husayn Kassai says the app would be run in the same way as health app Babylon, used by thousands of NHS patients to access video-call appointments with GPs.
Prof Casell remains unconvinced. ‘Above all else, it’s implausible,’ she says. ‘Health passports may have a role in high stakes settings such as care homes or hospitals, but even there they are not perfect because of the false negative rate.
‘Their widespread use could undermine the simple rules that we all need to follow. If I have been in contact with a case of Covid, I need to self-isolate – even if I had a negative test for my Health Passport this morning. Something like this creates a mixed message.’
Experts also highlight that testing works best when centralised – not least to give the authorities an accurate view of the spread of the virus.
As Prof Deeks says: ‘We need to think of what’s best for the whole country right now – not just individuals who want to go on holiday, or to the pub.’