Coronavirus: UK considers virus-tracing app to ease lockdown

A coronavirus app that alerts people if they have recently been in contact with someone testing positive for the virus “could play a critical role” in limiting lockdowns, scientists advising the government have said.

The location-tracking tech would enable a week’s worth of manual detective work to be done in an instant, they say.

But the academics say no-one should be forced to enrol – at least initially.

UK health chiefs have confirmed they are exploring the idea.

“NHSX is looking at whether app-based solutions might be helpful in tracking and managing coronavirus, and we have assembled expertise from inside and outside the organisation to do this as rapidly as possible,” said the tech-focused division’s chief Matthew Gould.

Instant alerts

The study by the team at the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine was published in the journal Science.

It proposes that an app would record people’s GPS location data as they move about their daily lives. This would be supplemented by users scanning QR (quick response) codes posted to public amenities in places where a GPS signal is inadequate, as well as Bluetooth signals.

If a person starts feeling ill, it is suggested they use the app to request a home test. And if it comes back positive for Covid-19, then an instant signal would be sent to everyone they had been in close contact with over recent days.

Those people would be advised to self-isolate for a fortnight, but would not be told who had triggered the warning.

Infographic shows how app would trace contacts using location and QR barcode scans and send them a notification when they'd been close to someone diagnosed with Covid-19

In addition, the test subject’s workplace and their transport providers could be told to carry out a decontamination clean-up.

“The constrictions that we’re currently under place [many people] under severe strain,” said the paper’s co-lead Prof Christophe Fraser.

“Therefore if you have the ability with a bit more information and the use of an app to relax a lockdown, that could provide very substantial and direct benefits.

“Also I think a substantial number of lives can be saved.”

To encourage take-up, it is suggested the app also acts as a hub for coronavirus-related health services and serves as a means to request food and medicine deliveries.

The academics note that similar smartphone software has already been deployed in China. It was also voluntary there, but users were allowed to go into public spaces or on public transport only if they had installed it.