A smartphone app designed to help contain the spread of Covid-19 when lockdown measures are eased is “two to three weeks” away from being rolled out, MPs have heard.
Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX, the health service’s digital innovation arm, told the Science and Technology Committee the voluntary tool would be trialled in a “small area” shortly to help gauge its success.
He said: “We are, I hope, on course to have the app ready for when it will be needed, for the moment when the country looks to have the tools to come out of lockdown safely.
“We are going as fast as we can, we have teams of people looking at it 24/7.”
But Mr Gould admitted regret after the committee heard work to develop the app did not start until March 7, two weeks before lockdown measures were introduced across the UK.
He said: “Yes it could have done, and with the benefit of hindsight I wish that it had.”
The app will work by using a smartphone’s Bluetooth technology to keep an anonymous record of other smartphone users they come into close proximity with.
The user will then have the option to send data to the app if they begin to show signs of having contracted coronavirus – or being found to have tested positive for Covid-19 – which will then send a notification to others who have been in close contact with the phone user.
Professor Christophe Fraser, senior group leader in pathogen dynamics at University of Oxford Big Data Institute, told the committee that widespread uptake of a contact-tracing app would likely keep the reproduction rate – seen as crucial for easing lockdown measures – low.
Prof Fraser said: “Because we don’t know what the uptake of the app will be, in scenarios that are relatively pessimistic we found that if roughly 60% of the population use the app, it would be enough to bring the reproduction number below one and control the epidemic.”
Mr Gould said it would be “tough” to get 80% of smartphone users to install the contact-tracing app, but said encouraging people to do so needed to become part of the government’s “core message” in limiting the spread of the virus.
The Government has been coming under increasing pressure over easing the lockdown, with Mr Johnson saying on Monday more would be said about the issue in the coming days.
He said: “The message needs to be: if you want to keep your family and yourselves safe, if you want to protect the NHS and stop it being overwhelmed and at the same time we want to get the country back and get the economy moving, the app is going to be an essential part of the strategy for doing that.”
He said developers were working with the Information Commissioner’s Office to make sure the app was compliant with data protection laws, but said phone users could be “confident” their personal data would not be compromised, nor would it be shared with the private sector.
He added: “The system we have developed of people using randomised identifiers, storing it on the phone, uploading it when they become systematic, I think it squares the circle of being fast moving and doing what we want it to do and protecting people’s privacy.”
Speaking in the Commons, Solicitor General Michael Ellis said that the app will be “heavily protected” and predicted that it will prove to be “very popular”.
He said: “Stakeholder engagement in this matter has been crucially important and continues to be, not only with the ethics advisory board for this app, chaired by Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery, but we’ve also been consulting with the information commissioner, the centre for data ethics and innovation, the national data guardian and many others.
“Trust is important, it always is but this is from NHSX, the tech arm of the NHS.
"We in this country trust our NHS with our data, this is going to be a heavily protected app and I’m confident that it’ll be very popular.”