Isle of Wight residents will be the first UK citizens to be offered access to a new contact-tracing app as part of government plans to test, track and trace COVID-19 infections.
Everyone living on the island will receive access to the official NHS COVID-19 contact-tracing app from Thursday 7 May, with NHS and council staff able to download from 4pm on 5 May.
The app will be combined with enhanced contact tracing services and swab testing for those with potential COVID-19 symptoms.
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “The Isle of Wight will pave the way for a nationwide rollout when the time is right. The app will help control the spread of coronavirus by alerting people they may have come into contact with it and recommending appropriate action.”
Modelling by academics at Oxford University’s Big Data Institute suggests that for every one to two people who download the app, one case of infection could be prevented.
When someone reports symptoms through the app, it will detect any other app users that the person has been in significant contact with over the past few days, including unknown contacts such as someone they may have sat next to on public transport.
The app will be able to anonymously alert these contacts and provide advice, including how to get a test to confirm whether or not they do have COVID-19. Users will be able order tests through the app shortly.
For those who may not have access to a smartphone, there will be an option to report symptoms and order tests in other ways.
Everyone who reports symptoms, including app users will also be asked to record recent contacts using an online service (or through a telephone interview if they prefer), so that contact tracers can reach all contacts who may be at risk, whether or not those contacts are app users. Contacts will then be alerted either by the app or by email or telephone, advising them to self-isolate or offering public health advice.
NHS and council staff were emailed a download link on Tuesday afternoon. From Thursday the app will be open for all residents on the Isle of Wight. All households will receive a leaflet with clear instructions on how to download and use the app on Thursday. A targeted marketing campaign will begin on Friday.
As the test, track and trace programme rolls out nationally, expected in mid-May, Public Health England (PHE) will oversee the deployment of 18,000 additional contact tracers to support the programme.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van Tam said: “By widespread testing those suspected to be infected with coronavirus, tracing their contacts and where appropriate advising them to self-isolate, we can slow the onward spread of the virus.
“This new app-based system, developed by technology experts in partnership with clinicians and scientists, will run alongside traditional contact tracing by PHE. If uptake and use is widespread it will give us the greatest room for manoeuvre to ease other social distancing measures.”
Dr Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director and Director of Health Protection at Public Health England, added: “Alongside the NHS COVID-19 app, PHE’s phone and web-based contact tracing will be a critical part of the government’s strategy to get the country back on its feet. Taking these first steps on the Isle of Wight will help us prepare for a scale up of our contact tracing capacity, with an 18,000 strong team ensuring the contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases are followed up and given the information they need.”
The Isle of Wight was chosen to trial the project because it has a single NHS trust that covers all NHS services on the island. Its geography as an island with a sizeable population makes it an ideal place to introduce the NHS COVID-19 app and wider testing service in its initial rollout period.
Isle of Wight Council leader Dave Stewart said: “I have always been keen to ensure we keep our special community safe from the virus but at the same time explore ways to enable us to get back up on our feet and move forward from it. This scheme offers the tightly controlled approach we need to help us do just that.
“Widespread tracing and testing holds the key to this ambition and if we are able to help the country move forward then the island will also have done its part in helping government in tackling this virus and re building our lives through safe social distancing when the time is right.”
The Government said it has collaborated internationally in developing the app, which uses similar Bluetooth low energy technology to that employed by apps in Australia, Norway and Singapore.
The app has been developed by NHSX, the technology arm of the health service, and a team of scientists and doctors. Matthew Gould, Chief Executive of NHSX, said: “Technology can help us get the country back on its feet. By launching the NHS COVID-19 app we can reduce transmission of the virus by alerting people who may have been exposed, so they can take action to protect themselves, the people they care about and the NHS. When combined with testing and enhanced web and phone contact tracing, this will help the country return to normality and beat coronavirus.”
To address concerns over privacy and security of users’ data, NHSX has worked with the National Cyber Security Centre to advise on best practice through the app’s development. The Government said data will only ever be used for NHS care, management, evaluation and research and the NHS will comply fully with the law around its use, including the Data Protection Act.
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