In the early stages of the pandemic, the task of contact tracing played an important role in tackling the spread of the Coronavirus. Contact tracing was quite simply, tracking down all the people an infected person had had contact with during the time that they are considered infectious. These people would normally be asked to self-isolate for two weeks as well as being given advice and any care needed. As COVID-19 very rapidly developed to an overwhelming level, this process became harder and harder to enact in many countries. The interview process undertaken to trace contacts became too slow. According to the World Health Organisation, this was an intervention previously seen to effectively control the spread of Ebola.
In the UK, whilst country-wide testing is struggling to take swing and Health officials are urging the UK government to do more to increase the number of tests undertaken per day, (as of April 2nd ‘Around 13,000 tests are available each day against a target of 25,000’ according to the BBC), the UK’s healthcare service; The National Health Service (NHS) is discussing the use and introduction of a smartphone contact tracing app. Which would be developed by the healthcare’s digital offshoot NHSX.
Although, the ability to contact trace was flooded by the sheer volume of cases, it is still an effective process to get ahead of the coronavirus spread. In a video, a spokesperson talking to the BBC indicated that the contact tracing process would ‘reduce from a week, to an instantaneous notification’ ‘…maintaining long-term control of the epidemic.’
The study into such an app was published in the Journal of Science and was researched by the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine, whose abstract stated: ‘We conclude that viral spread is too fast to be contained by manual contact tracing, but could be controlled if this process was faster, more efficient and happened at scale. A contact-tracing App which builds a memory of proximity contacts and immediately notifies contacts of positive cases can achieve epidemic control if used by enough people. By targeting recommendations to only those at risk, epidemics could be contained without need for mass quarantines (‘lock-downs’) that are harmful to society.’
The proposed app would record peoples GPS data as they go about their daily lives, supplemented by QR scanning and Bluetooth data. Should a person become ill, they would use the app to request a home test, if the test returns positive, then an instantaneous notification would be sent to others who have been in contact with the infected persons. Those contacted would then be told to self-isolate for fourteen days. Public spaces or workplaces that the person has been in contact with could also be notified and instructed to decontaminate.
The notification would be anonymous and according to a spokesperson from the BBC the GPS data would be lower than the usage taken from navigation apps. The app may also be encouraged to provide information for coronavirus health services and request food and medicine deliveries.
One of the paper’s lead authors, Professor Christophe Fraser, stated to the BBC: ‘”The constrictions that we’re currently under place [many people are] under severe strain… 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.”’
The Guardian estimated that ‘Around 60% of the adult population would need to sign up and engage with the app by registering their symptoms or positive test results for it to be effective. Their proximity to other users would be logged, and they would follow advice given in alerts to self-isolate – even in cases where they were not aware of having been in contact with someone infected.’ Further, the app could be available within weeks.
For those without smartphones, Senior researcher on the project Professor David Bosnall stated to The Guardian: “That’s where this concept of herd protection came from… You can protect the vulnerable people in society who may not have smartphones, and protect children. If enough adults across the population engage with the system and trust the system telling them they should isolate, you’re protecting all those individuals who don’t have a device.”
Such an app has already been imposed in China and although apparently not enforced for everyone, is enforced for those who are intending to leave the house and enables them to navigate their daily lives.
There are, of course, talks around the ethics of imposing such an app. At the moment the consensus seems to be that the app should be voluntary, however, this could change should the situation become direr. At the moment it is understood that the users would be encouraged to sign up in a collective effort to get the pandemic under control. Ethicists have raised the point of needing to see clear ‘stop-rules’ on data usage after the situation clears up. However, the use of such technology, many academics are urging would be a critical tool in alleviating the situation.
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