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NHS tracing app advisors ‘cannot decide if they should consider telling ministers to ditch strategy’

The Government’s tracing app advisors ‘cannot decide whether to tell ministers to ditch its current strategy in favour of an Apple and Google version’.

The ethical advisory board debated how big a role it should play in discussing whether the model is the best design, during a meeting on Thursday.

The app is part of the Government’s ‘test, track and trace’ plan for controlling the virus and allowing the UK to re-open and return to some form of normality.

It works using Bluetooth signals to detect when two phones come close to each other. When someone develops symptoms of COVID-19, they notify the app which then uses the Bluetooth log to inform other users that they may also have the virus.

The board, chaired by Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery, fear these people will be discriminated against in the future if the tool is used to identify people who do and don’t have the disease.

Members of the board also expressed concern over risks of compromising the design due to a rush in using the technology without proper testing, according to The Guardian.

Known as contact tracing, it is a way of keeping one step ahead of the virus by isolating people who don’t have symptoms yet, but may still be infectious.

Professor Montgomery and colleagues said those who do not have smartphones must be protected by manual contact tracing.

This is also part of the Government’s contact tracing scheme, and will involve a pledged 18,000 call handlers who conduct interviews with COVID-19 cases.

The technology is being trialled on the Isle of Wight, a sign telling people in the region to download the app, above, ahead of a national rollout expected around mid-May

The technology is being trialled on the Isle of Wight, a sign telling people in the region to download the app, above, ahead of a national rollout expected around mid-May


NHSX’s contact tracing app, which hasn’t yet been named, will be a voluntary download that members of the public will be encouraged to use.

The Government hopes at least half of the population of Britain will agree to use it. The more people use it the more effective it will be.

It will require people to put in the first half of their postcode, to give vague location details, and to keep their bluetooth switched on when they leave the house.

Whenever someone comes into close contact with someone else using the app – generally defined as within 6’6″ (2m) – the app will log the meeting.

Each person’s profile will then build up a list of all the contacts they have had while using the app. These will be anonymised and stored as codes rather than identifiable pieces of information such as names or addresses.

If someone is diagnosed with the coronavirus, or develops suspicious symptoms, they will be told to log this in the app.

The app will then upload the data to a central NHS server, which will be able to send anonymous warnings to everyone that that person had come into contact with during the time they may have been infectious. The alert will advise people to self-isolate and tell them they are at risk of infection.

If one of the contacts of the original patient then becomes ill, the same process will begin with them.

But the app risks sidelining millions of people who don’t have a mobile phone when ministers roll it out nationwide, with one in five Britons not owning a phone.

It’s likely these people will be of an old age and therefore most vulnerable to catching COVID-19.

Commenting on the matter, cybersecurity specialist Jake Moore, from software protection company ESET, told MailOnline: ‘There are still a large number of folk of an older age who don’t own a smartphone, and these people are predominantly those who are most at risk.

‘It is vital that the older generations who are more susceptible to reacting badly to the virus are in fact using the app and able to be alerted quickly and efficiently to the notifications. However, if 21 per cent of Britons do not own a smartphone, then the app is arguably flawed for those most at risk.’

It comes as more than half of the residents of the Isle of Wight have downloaded the Covid-19 contact tracing app being trialled on the island, it has been revealed.

Speaking at the daily Downing Street briefing on Thursday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said more than 70,000 people had downloaded the software.

He said: ‘There are now over half the residents of the Isle of Wight, where this is being tested out, who have downloaded the tracking app for the first time, or, in total, rather the actual number is 72,300.’

The NHS app is part of the Government’s test, track and trace strategy, and is central to its efforts in slowing the spread of coronavirus.

The technology is being trialled on the Isle of Wight ahead of a national roll-out expected around mid-May.

Earlier this month, Mr Shapps said that around 50% to 60% of people will need to use the software for it to be effective.

Mr Shapps also said visitors to the UK would be asked to download the app.

He added: ‘One of the things we will be asking people to do at the border when they come in is to download the app.

‘And provide us with contact details, so that we know where people are.’

The app is available on Apple IOS version 11 and higher and Android version 8 and higher.