Covid-19: High-stakes virus app test puts sleepy UK island in spotlight

  • Mobile apps
  • Wednesday, 13 May 2020

A UK National Health Service employee shows a smartphone displaying the new NHS app to trace contacts with people potentially infected with the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) being trialled on Isle of Wight, Britain. There have already been some hiccups. Some users on the Isle of Wight, including those who work in the island’s care homes or large prison, aren’t allowed to carry phones at work. — Reuters

A small island off Britain’s south coast is trialling the country’s virus-tracing smartphone app, before it’s rolled out over the next few days to track the pandemic nationwide. There have already been some hiccups.

Some users on the Isle of Wight, including those who work in the island’s care homes or large prison, aren’t allowed to carry phones at work. Android users are being asked to grant permission for location data, even though the app claims not to use it. Older users may not have up-to-date smartphones, while one user declined to download the app because she doesn’t trust the government’s assurances on data.

“The test is throwing up lots of really good information,” said the Isle of Wight’s member of Parliament Bob Seely, part of the ruling Conservative party.

The UK is trying to slowly reopen large parts of the economy that have been shuttered. Ministers want to see the current app rolled out across the country by the middle of May, as a crucial part of the effort to track and trace the spread of the virus. That will help businesses reopen and workers return to their jobs, but leaves them little time to iron out any problems they’re finding.

A major risk as people return to work is those unwittingly spreading the virus, leading to a second wave of infections. An app will only help if enough people to download it, which privacy rules say must be a voluntary process. An University of Oxford study said 80% of smartphone users need to participate in the programme for it to be effective, the equivalent of 56% of the general population.

Although more than 55,000 islanders now have the app, according to Seely, that’s still less than half the 140,000-strong population. But he says that actually accounts for about two-thirds of the program’s potential audience, once you count out people who don’t have smartphones, are younger than 16 or have incompatible operating systems – such as those made by Huawei Technologies Ltd or found on older Apple Inc and Android phones.

Others are refusing to download the app for political or privacy reasons.

"Transparency and extra information and honesty would help,” said Vix Lowthion, the Green Party’s Isle of Wight representative, adding it’s not clear how the government is using the data or whether the information they collect i is truly anonymous. "The people on the island have had to download it with no rights over the data, no rights to withdraw the data.”

Lowthion isn’t downloading the app partly due to privacy concerns, but isn’t discouraging others from doing so, she added. Her mother tried and failed to get the app because her phone’s operating system wasn’t supported. The Isle of Wight has 24% of its population over 65, versus about 17% across England and Wales generally – according to the Office of National Statistics.

Hundreds of people are being asked for comments, and NHSX is calibrating the app’s sensitivity day-by-day, said Seely. There may be a report published on the trial’s findings, he added. NHSX – the UK health service’s digital arm – worked on the app with VMware Inc, Zuhlke Engineering, Microsoft Inc, the University of Oxford and the UK’s air force, according to a VMWare spokeswoman.

The UK has already faced pressure over potential flaws to the current app. On Thursday, an initial technical analysis by Privacy International showed it includes code that could allow authorities access to a user’s detailed location data, despite the NHS previously saying it was unable to do so.

Critics have said the country is taking a risk by eschewing a more popular protocol developed by Apple and Alphabet that cuts the government off from user data. The U.K. may still consider alternatives to the current application, the prime minister’s spokesman said on Friday.

"The suggestion we are now abandoning this model is wrong,” said a spokeswoman for the Department of Health & Social Care. "We’ve been working with Apple and Google throughout the app’s development and it’s quite right and normal to continue to refine the app.”

Over the past few days British Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed his plan to start easing restrictions on leisure activities and some workplaces. If the current app is rolled out nationwide, it will have some cheerleaders.

"The feedback from me is it’s easy and painless,” said resident Will Doyle. "It’s killing my battery though. I never had to charge my iPhone X in a day before adding it – but that’s a small price to pay.” – Bloomberg

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