An official government mobile phone app could soon track millions of people in the UK in order prevent a second wave of coronavirus infections

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

REUTERS/Hannah Mckay

  • The UK government is this week launching a mobile app for tracking and tracing the coronavirus.

  • It will be trialled on the 141,000 people living on the Isle of Wight, an island off the south coast of England.

  • Boris Johnson’s government hopes to roll out the app to the rest of the UK this month.

  • Scientists behind the app say 60% of people need to use it for it to be successful.

  • Bluetooth technology will enable the UK authorities to inform people when they’ve had close contact with someone with the virus.

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Millions of British people are set to have their location tracked by an official government mobile phone app, due to be trialled from this week, which is designed to prevent another spike in coronavirus infections.

The app, which will identify whether individuals have been in close sustained contact with people who have contracted the coronavirus, will be revealed by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Monday.

It forms the central part of Boris Johnson’s plan to gradually re-open the UK economy after an extended national coronavirus lockdown.

A senior government official quoted in The Times newspaper on Monday said: “This is completely critical to the success of the next stage… We really need it to work.”

However, doubts remain about how effective the app will be at reducing infections and how many British people will really be willing to allow such a potential intrusion into their private lives.

How will the app work?

London coronavirus
London coronavirus

REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

The app uses bluetooth technology to register when a user is within six feet of someone else for at least 15 minutes.

If the user begins to develop symptoms of the coronavirus, like a persistent cough or fever, they can use the app to alert the National Health Service and tell other users of the app who they have been in close contact with.

In theory, this means those who need to self-isolate will be able to do so quickly, helping the UK government and NHS manage the virus with greater efficiency than they do at the moment.

Professor Christophe Fraser, an Oxford Univerity scientist who is co-leading work on the app, has said that least 60% of the population must download and use the app for it to be successful.

Fraser and his team first tested the technology on a virtual city of a computerised population of people, designed to mirror the behaviour and make-up of the British population, The Times newspaper reported.

This week the app is tested on actual people — the 141,000 who live on the Isle of Wight.

Why the Isle of Wight?

Isle of Wight
Isle of Wight

Peter Titmus/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Scientists have chosen to trial the app on the Isle of Wight, an island off the south coast of England, because it has a small population which will be relatively easy to trace.

Being an island also means the Isle of Wight can more easily quarantine its people and keep out new infections than places like busy inland cities.

The Isle of Wight has recorded just over one hundred cases of the coronavirus and 29 deaths.

When will it be rolled out to the rest of the country?

London coronavirus
London coronavirus


Transport Secretary Grant Shapps over the weekend said the UK government’s plan was to extend the app to the rest of the country later this month.

“Later in the month, that app will be rolled out and deployed — assuming the tests are successful, of course – to the population at large,” he told Sky News.

The expansion of the app will coincide with a ramping up of coronavirus testing capacity.

Just over 76,000 tests were carried out on Saturday, May 2, with the UK government working match countries like Germany and raise the daily number of tests into the hundreds of thousands.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Friday 122,347 tests had taken place that day, surpassing his target of 100,000 a day by the end of April. A third of those tests were recorded before being carried out.

Have other countries used an app like this?

A medical staff member talks with a man at a testing facility in Seoul on March 4, 2020.
A medical staff member talks with a man at a testing facility in Seoul on March 4, 2020.

Getty Images

Countries around the world like Australia, Singapore, and Iceland have created their own tracking and tracing apps, with others like the UK in the development stage.

South Korea’s strategy for fighting the coronavirus is currently lauded as a model for other countries to follow.

South Korea’s focus was on extensive testing from the very outset of its pandemic, establishing drive-thru centres and its own app for tracking and tracing the coronavirus in the population.

However, South Korea’s version is more intrusive than the technology reportedly set to be deployed in the UK.

Unlike the UK government’s app, South Korea’s automatically collects real-time information on the location of its users. Rather than using location data, the UK app keeps a log of which users have been in close proximity.

Other countries have had less success rolling out this technology. A similar scheme in Singapore was reportedly taken up by just 20% of citizens amid privacy concerns, the Times reported.

Are there security concerns over the UK app?

Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock
Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock


Yes. Last week, 177 cybersecurity experts penned an open letter to the UK government, expressing their concern that the technology could be used for mass-surveillance of the British population once the COVID-19 crisis is over.

“It is vital that, when we come out of the current crisis, we have not created a tool that enables data collection on the population, or on targeted sections of society, for surveillance,” the letter said.

Apple and Google are releasing an API for governments to use for developing track and trace apps. To use the Apple-Google API, governments’ apps must promise to de-centralize their data — i.e. all the data processing would stay on that person’s device.

However, the UK government has rejected the Apple and Google offer, and opted to process its app’s user data on a central server, the justification being that this will make the data easier to analyse.

The letter warns that this sort of centralised system for collecting data could facilitate “mission creep,” meaning the government could later use the data for purposes other than tracking COVID-19.

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