CEO of the NHS’s central digital unit, NHSX, has said that the government’s COVID-19 digital contact tracing app will technically be ready for wide scale use in two to three weeks. However, Matthew Gould added caution by saying that the timing of the app release will depend on the readiness of the government’s broader test, trace and isolate strategy.
Gould was answering questions from members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, where it was also revealed that NHSX believes it is ahead of Google and Apple on the development of contact tracing solutions and waiting for them to catch up could delay rollout.
Contact tracing apps - which use bluetooth technology via your smartphone to keep track of who you come into close contact with - have been touted as one of the ways to better manage the spread of the novel Coronavirus and help ease lockdown restrictions.
The idea being that if you start to experience symptoms in line with COVID-19, you then self report these into an app and that then lets everyone you came into contact with know to self-isolate too. Testing on everyone involved would then be carried out to confirm whether they COVID-19 or not.
The development of these contact tracing apps have been aided by Google and Apple coming together to develop an API - and a future platform built into their respective OS’s.
The government is hoping to couple this with 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day and the hiring of 18,000 staff to support manual contact tracing. It is unclear when both these targets will be met.
Gould explained the thinking behind the app to the Committee:
The way that we can manage this safely is by being able to rapidly detect and isolate people who have recently come into contact with new COVID-19 cases. So, 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 get the economy moving, the app is going to be an essential part of the strategy for doing that.
Getting people to use the app
Professor Christophe Fraser, Senior Group Leader in Pathogen Dynamics at the University of Oxford Big Data Institute, said that various simulations have been carried out to get an understanding of the impact of the use of a digital tracing app if lockdown restrictions are eased. He said that if uptake of the app is substantial and if people use it correctly (share their data and self-isolate when advised to), then the reproduction number could potentially be kept below 1.
The reproduction number is a measure used to understand how quickly COVID-19 is spreading within the community. For example, if the reproduction number is 3, then for every person infected, they will then pass it on to three people. It has been said that a reproduction below 1 will keep the pandemic manageable across the UK, in terms of NHS capacity and other services.
However, it has been said that the country would need to see upwards of 60% uptake of the tracing app for it to be effective. In fact, 80% uptake was mentioned during the Committee briefing. Gould warned that this would take a tremendous effort. He said;
To be blunt about it, the levels of download that you’ve mentioned, which would be optimal for making the thing work, will be tough. It will require us to really get the message over that this is a core part of how we move forward. It will require us to earn and keep the trust of the people that we are doing this in the right way and that they understand what we are doing.
It will require us to have messages from everyone that people trust, both from the government, but also more widely. It will require us to find messengers and messages that will resonate in communities that we need to be a part of. It will require an enormous comms effort. But if we can get that level of trust and participation, the impact on our ability to manage the situation will be important.
Gould said that NHSX is working night and day to get the app ready for rollout, once the government’s other testing and tracing capabilities are also ready. He explained that the first phase will see the app used in a small area within the next couple of weeks, to see how the new technology might work locally before a national rollout.
However, it won’t be long before the app is ready for broader use. Gould said:
I would expect us to have it technically ready, subject to performing in the trials and the small area in the way we expect, for a wider deployment in two to three weeks. Whether it is then deployed, depends on the wider strategy.
The app makes sense as part of a strategy. Part of a strategy where there's contact tracing on one side, and testing on the other. And we need to make sure the hinge between those paths works.
As countries started to develop their contact tracing solutions, Google and Apple came forward and said that they were also collaborating to develop tools to help - as their respective OS’s cover most smartphones around the world.
However, Gould said that whilst NHSX is working closely with Apple and Google, he believes that the UK is ahead of them in terms of development. He explained:
We are working very closely with Apple and Google. We are talking to them frequently about what we are doing, what APIs they’re using and how it’s working. But the Apple and Google approach is itself evolving and it’s not there yet.
What they have said is that they will do a two stage process. Firstly, to make an API available - so allowing those developing contact tracing apps to more effectively do so. And second stage develop their own contact tracing product - but we are some way from that second stage. So actually waiting for them I think would slow us down quite considerably.