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Coronavirus Lockdown: NHS app could be key to easing restrictions

No-one knows when this is coming to an end. We’re one week into an initial three-week lockdown, which is highly likely to be extended for an unknown period of time. And it sucks, doesn’t it?

However, once restrictions are eased, things just aren’t going to go back to normal right away. Social distancing will remain in play for months, and there are likely to be limits on who can go where.

Related: How to stop Google using your location data for its Covid-19 behaviour tracking reports

One of the tools the government is reportedly considering to help avoid that dreaded ‘second wave’ is a mobile app designed to alert people if they’ve been close to someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus.

According to a Sky News report, the app will use Bluetooth signals to detect the phones of other users and quietly store a list of those contacts. Then, if someone tests positive, those contacts could be alerted (after a delay to avoid identifying individuals).

Those people could then self isolate and take the necessary precautions expected of those who’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus.

Importantly, the app would be opt-in and could be released just before or alongside the future easing of restrictions, according to the report. Those familiar with the matter told Sky that the NHS wants more than 50% of the population to volunteer to use the app, as large numbers will be necessary for it to work effectively.

Related: Imagining a year with no new tech

According to report, the app has been developed by the health service’s NHSX innovation arm, but would surely cause a privacy storm that would harm adoption.

In an open letter to the head of NHSX and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, a group of responsible technologists pointed out that “location and contact tracking technology could be used as a means of social control.”

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