Coronavirus: How does contact tracing work and is my data safe?

coronavirus how does contact tracing work and is my data safe - Coronavirus: How does contact tracing work and is my data safe?Image copyright Getty Images
coronavirus how does contact tracing work and is my data safe - Coronavirus: How does contact tracing work and is my data safe?

The UK will have a ”world-beating” coronavirus tracing programme by 1 June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson says.

A team of 25,000 contact tracers will track down people who have been near those with coronavirus. Later on, an app will tell people if they have been near to someone with the disease and may need to self isolate.

What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing is a system used to slow the spread of infectious diseases like coronavirus. It has already been used in places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Germany.

One method is for someone who has been infected to list all the people with whom they’ve recently been in prolonged contact.

Those people will then be tracked down and potentially asked to self-isolate.

Another way is by using a location-tracking mobile app, which monitors when users come into contact with each other.

The advantage of an app is it can identify people the patient may not know – like fellow passengers on a bus.

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Media captionWATCH: What is contact tracing and how does it work?

What will contact tracing look like in the UK?

The government says a tracing system will be in place by 1 June, and that 24,000 contact tracers have already been recruited.

They will gather contacts from patients and trace those people by phone or email.

BBC political correspondent Ross Hawkins has seen a paper which says a trial will start with 10 councils across England, before being extended.

A free NHS smartphone app will work in tandem with manual tracing, which everyone with a smartphone will be asked to download.

It was originally due to be rolled out nationwide in mid-May, but the government now says it will be ready ”in the coming weeks”.

Once downloaded, it will run in the background of your phone, provided Bluetooth is switched on.

If a user develops coronavirus symptoms, it is up to them to let the app inform the NHS.

That message may trigger an anonymous alert to other users with whom they recently had significant contact, potentially asking them to go into quarantine or be tested.

Has the Isle of Wight app trial been successful?

A trial of the tracing app is under way on the Isle of Wight.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock says the elderly population on the island – and lower number of smartphone users – made it a useful place to study the spread of a virus.

Relatively restricted travel to the island was also a factor.

As of 14 May, just over half of the island’s 140,000 residents had downloaded the app.

However, security flaws have been flagged in the app. Researchers say these pose risks to users’ privacy, and could be used to prevent alerts being sent.

How have other countries used contact tracing?

Contact tracing has been credited with helping to lift restrictions in other places:

  • South Korea has monitored credit card transactions, CCTV footage and mobile phone locations
  • Singapore has used police investigations and detective work to piece together where people have been
  • Norway has seen only one in five people actively use its contact tracing app. Privacy concerns were raised, with users’ data stored on a central database
  • Austria was the first country to roll out a decentralised app. Operated by the Red Cross, users have the option of manually controlling when matches take place
  • Iceland saw 40% of the population download its app – one of the highest rates anywhere – but says manual tracing has proved just as important

Will contact tracing help end lockdown?

It is hoped that contact tracing combined with other measures could help ease lockdown restrictions.

It is unlikely that the UK will ever have the same level of tracing as somewhere like South Korea.

Image copyright NHS

A widely-used app might help, but take-up would have to be massive for the virus to be totally supressed. Academics advising the NHS estimate 80% of smartphone users – 60% of the population – would have to download and use it.

For comparison, the highly successful messaging app WhatsApp has only been downloaded by 67% of UK smartphone users.

People would also have to be honest about displaying any potential symptoms, and inform the NHS.

What if I don’t have a smartphone?

The app only works on smartphones. If you don’t have one, you should be able to report symptoms and order tests over the phone and via an online service.

Everyone who displays symptoms will be asked to record recent contacts online or via telephone so tracers can reach all those potentially at risk.

What can the government do with my data?

Not everyone is happy with the government and third parties having access to people’s data. Civil rights group Liberty says using the app should not be a condition to leaving the lockdown or returning to work.

The NHS says information gathered will only ever be used for health and research purposes.

The UK app will use a “centralised model”, meaning the matching process will take place on a computer server.

An alternative, decentralised model was put forward by Apple and Google, where the exchange happens on people’s handsets.

The tech giants say their version makes it harder for hackers or the authorities to use the computer server logs to track and identify specific individuals.

But NHSX, the part of the NHS developing the app, says its centralised system will help give it more insight into how the disease spreads.

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