The NHS is building a coronavirus app that uses contact tracing to help record the spread of the virus.
But it won’t be using the plan devised by Silicon Valley heavyweights Apple and Google instead preferring to do things a different way.
Contact tracing uses smartphones to automatically detect when people come into close proximity to others that have had the virus and notify them. The devices pick up when two people are within a certain distance of each other for longer than a specified amount of time.
Google and Apple recently joined forces to ensure Android and iOS can work with each other to make this process happen no matter what kind of device you have. The tech companies envision a ‘decentralised’ approach where the matches and computing power is handled on the smartphones themselves.
However, the NHS plans to go ahead with a ‘centralised’ approach that uses a central server to work out who to send alerts to if social distancing has been breached.
Apple and Google will release an API this week for building apps that support their model.
The NHS says a centralised app will give it better insight into the spread of Covid-19 and help it fight the spread of the virus more effectively.
‘One of the advantages is that it’s easier to audit the system and adapt it more quickly as scientific evidence accumulates,’ Prof Christophe Fraser, one of the epidemiologists advising NHSX (the health service’s digital innovation unit), told the BBC.
‘The principal aim is to give notifications to people who are most at risk of having got infected, and not to people who are much lower risk.
‘It’s probably easier to do that with a centralised system.’
Germany had planned to follow a centralised system for its own contact tracing app, but then announced it was switching back to a decentralised approach.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said the NHS app will adhere to the highest security standards to alleviate privacy concerns.
‘As we ramp up our ability to test in large numbers, we also need to make sure we have the ability to trace contacts just as effectively’ he said.
‘All data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards and would only be used for NHS care and research and we won’t hold it any longer than is needed.’
How will the contact tracing app work?
For the NHS app to work, people will need to download it and then self-report if they feel unwell.
If someone then tests positive for coronavirus, they must update the app again and any other users who have been in close proximity with that person will be alerted anonymously and told to self isolate for 14 days.
Around 60% of the UK’s adult population will need to sign up and use the app in order for the technology to be effective.
The app is not currently available to download but is said to be in the advanced stages of developement.
Mr Hancock said: ‘We are already testing this app and as we do this we are working with the world’s leading tech companies and renowned experts in clinical safety and digital ethics so that we can get this right.’
It is hoped that the app will be ready to launch and use in a couple of weeks.
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