England's coronavirus contact tracing app to start trials Thursday

13 August 2020, 06:35

The NHS Contact Tracing app was trialled on the Isle of Wight
The NHS Contact Tracing app was trialled on the Isle of Wight. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Public trials for a new coronavirus contract tracing app are set to start in England on Tuesday but there are still concerns over distance measuring, according to reports.

Designed to support the NHS Test and Trace operation it keeps a log of those the user comes into close contact with but previous versions have been embroiled in controversy over delays and privacy concerns.

In June the Government tested an initial version of the app on the Isle of Wight but this was dropped over accuracy issues, weeks after Health Secretary Matt Hancock first suggested it would be available in mid-May.

The Government has since moved on to technology designed by Apple and Google - already used in several countries across the world - which handles data in a more privacy-friendly manner and does not suffer the same type of accuracy error.

However, this method is said to struggle with a problem of its own, measuring distance between people correctly.

According to reports, the Isle of Wight will be part of the trial once again, as well as one other area in England and a volunteer group.

"We need the app to help stop transmission by tracing close-proximity contacts as quickly and as comprehensively as possible, capturing those contacts we don't know or don't remember meeting," Professor Christophe Fraser, a scientific adviser to the Department of Health from Oxford University, told the BBC.

"The app should enable us to return to more normal daily activities with the reassurance that our contacts can be rapidly and anonymously notified if we get infected."

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Northern Ireland has already launched its Covid-19 contact tracing app, while Scotland is expected to have its own by autumn.

The Apple/Google approach works by carrying out the contact matching process on a user's smartphone itself, making it more secure and harder for any potential hackers to access and de-anonymise any data for nefarious means.

Their system also bars authorities from using the technology to collect any location data from users.