Scottish Government 'cautious' about NHS tracing app

Nicola Sturgeon has said she is “cautious” about using a coronavirus tracking app being developed to stem the spread of the disease.

An app for tracing those who've been in contact with a person carrying coronavirus is being tested by the UK government.
An app for tracing those who've been in contact with a person carrying coronavirus is being tested by the UK government.

The UK government is considering using a centralised NHS app to trace the virus and tests are expected to begin this week on the Isle of Wight.

However the First Minister said she was “cautious” about basing a test, trace and isolate (TTI) strategy solely through the app, as it would need high levels of uptake by the population which would require “significant levels of trust in the privacy element”.

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At the Scottish Government briefing in Edinburgh she said: “We’re building a digital system to make sure as much of the TTI process can be automated, but the app is separate to that digital approach.

“The app is a proximity app which would operate on bluetooth technology. If you download it and tell it you have symptoms it would automatically alert anybody you would be in contact with as long as they have also downloaded the app. The development of this app is being led by the UK government and we’re seeking to maximise Scottish Government involvement in it. We believe it could be a very important part of a TTI system but as an enhancement.

“It’s important to be clear in Scotland we’re not building our whole system around that.”

She added: “We know that the success of an app like that will be dependent on high take up by the public and that in turn will depend on building confidence in the technology and the use of data so we want to do that very carefully indeed.”

She said she had seen a UK figure which would mean 60 per cent of the population would need to download the app for it to work effectively.

“That’s a high uptake and the thing that’s upper most in my mind when you’re taking about technology of this nature, which effectively tracks people and can tell whether two people have been in close contact with each other, is you have to have significant levels of trust in the privacy elements and what happens with the data, and so it’s important to do that carefully if we’re to get uptake levels like that.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that done properly, with that level of public confidence, this could be a really important part of how we implement TTI but I’d be very cautious at the moment, and that’s why we’re not doing this in Scotland, about building a whole system around it.”

Scotland’s National Clinical Director, Professor Jason Leitch said that as well as a need for high uptake, high levels of “digital literacy” would also be required for an app to work, and as a result some people might "find it impossible” and others “will choose not to do it”. He said the government’s plan to recruit 2000 new staff to help contact trace was therefore vital.

“We need traditional, old-fashioned contact tracers, someone who will phone you up and say where were you in the last few days, who did you see, who were you beside? It’s quite a skilled interview process,” he said. “The health protection teams are used to it, and will train new people to be able to do that. If we can add a contract tracing app then all the better but we shouldn’t be reliant on it.”

He said similar contact tracing was generally carried out for sexually transmitted diseases or more recently Ebola.

The First Minister added: “Even the traditional contract racing on a mass scale is asking people to share private information, getting into how people are living their lives. This is something most people are not familiar with which just underlines the point about building up carefully the knowledge and confidence in how that system would work.”

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