Coronavirus: Scotland refuses to join NHS contact tracing app

Scotland refuses to join NHS contact tracing app: Nicola Sturgeon says she will wait to see if it works before committing as experts warn Matt Hancock he will ‘almost inevitably’ face a legal challenge over privacy concerns

  • Trial of NHSX coronavirus contact tracing app began on Isle of Wight this week
  • App viewed as key piece in puzzle to getting Britain back to work after lockdown 
  • Scottish government yet to commit to using the app in big blow to Matt Hancock
  • Experts have warned the Government is likely to face a court battle over the app
  • Civil liberties groups and lawyers have growing fears over how data will be used
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

The Scottish government has dealt a potential hammer blow to Matt Hancock’s coronavirus contact tracing app as it said it will only commit to the technology if it is shown to work and is secure. 

The app is a key piece in the government’s plan to get the UK out of lockdown and back to work and will need at least 60 per cent of the nation to download it for it to be effective. 

But Nicola Sturgeon has said she is ‘cautious’ about the app and has stressed Scotland’s approach to stopping the spread of the disease will be more ‘old fashioned’.

Meanwhile, Professor Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, said he will only download the app ‘once I’m confident that it works’ and the ‘security is good’. 

Should Scotland refuse to recommend the app it will undoubtedly hit the UK government’s efforts to hit the 60 per cent threshold. 

It came amid growing concerns over the way in which the app works and the data it will collect with experts warning Mr Hancock it is ‘almost inevitable’ he will face a legal challenge. 

Civil liberties campaigners and barristers are demanding the government legislate to restrict the way in which the data collected by the app can be used. 

Some are concerned that the lack of regulation could result in the movement of people data eventually being used to identify anyone who is not sticking to social distancing rules so they can be punished. 

Matt Hancock, pictured in Downing Street today, began trialling a contact tracing app on the Isle of Wight this week

But Nicola Sturgeon, pictured yesterday, has refused to commit to Scotland adopting the app

Experts fear track and trace app could be hijacked by trolls

The NHS’s new coronavirus track-and-trace app could be hijacked by trolls bent on ‘sowing chaos for malicious pleasure’ with people more likely to ignore warnings about self-isolating if ‘false alerts’ become widespread, experts warned today.

The UK app is currently the only one in the world that will allow an element of self reporting – letting users trigger alerts to other people by reporting they have symptoms.

In the early version of the app, if a member of the public becomes unwell with symptoms of Covid-19 they use the app to inform the NHS – and will trigger an anonymous ‘yellow’ alert to those other users with whom they came into significant contact over the previous few days. 

A so-called red alert will follow up to a week later if a medical test confirms that the original user is infected and telling them they should self-isolate. The original user will have to enter a PIN provided by the NHS to trigger the red alert.

Several experts have warned that the user-triggered yellow alerts could lead to a collapse in the public’s trust in the app if there is an outbreak of ‘crying wolf’.

Because the app does not identify users, there will be no way to punish people who trigger false alerts.  

 

The UK government has insisted so-called ‘shoe leather epidemiology’ will be part of its ‘test, track and trace’ programme with 18,000 staff due to be recruited – but the app will be integral to its success. 

It began to be trialled on the Isle of Wight this week with a view to then rolling it out nationwide in the coming months. 

The app, developed by NHSX, works using bluetooth which logs whenever someone is within two metres of someone else for more than 15 minutes. 

People will be told to tell the NHS when they develop coronavirus symptoms and at that point the data collected by the app will be used to contact everyone the infected person has been close to in recent weeks.  

The Government has insisted that all data will be completely anonymised, with Mr Hancock rejecting claims the app could open the door to ‘pervasive state surveillance’. He said that was ‘completely wrong’. 

But the Health Secretary is facing an uphill battle to win over critics of the initiative after the UK adopted a different path to other European nations. 

Britain’s app will see contact information held centrally by the NHS with ministers arguing this will speed up the tracing part of the programme so that people can be tested quickly.

But other European nations are using decentralised apps, one of which is backed by Google and Apple, which see phones communicate directly with each other. 

Experts believe this approach is less likely to face a legal challenge because the data is not stored centrally.  

Barristers told the Telegraph that the UK’s app proposes ‘significantly greater interference with users’ privacy’ and as a result it will require ‘greater justification’.  

They argued the government is yet to justify its approach and that it is ‘almost inevitable’ that legal proceedings will be brought against it with the potential for a protracted court battle. 

The fact the UK has chosen a different path to many other European countries has sparked fears that the different systems will be incompatible. 

That could result in Britons having to unnecessarily quarantine themselves for 14 days when travelling to another country. 

Meanwhile, there are also fears the UK app could be abused because it is reliant on people reporting symptoms. 

Experts believe mischievous pupils could falsely report having symptoms in order to shut down schools or disaffected workers could do the same to try to get firms closed.

Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: ‘Someone might feel that they are fed up with their boss and want to cause some trouble so they self-report and get half of the work force sent home to self-isolate.’ 

Lawyers are also concerned that the app is not underpinned by its own legislation. 

Some civil liberties campaigners are concerned that the lack of regulation could see the data collected being abused in the future.

For example, they fear the data could be used to show who has been breaking social distancing rules with punishments then being dished out. 

Legal experts have put forward a draft bill which would set ‘basic safeguards’ on how the app could be used in the future. 

Those safeguards would include a guarantee that no one would be penalised for not having a phone, for leaving their house without a phone and that no one will be ‘compelled’ to install the app.

Concerns have been raised about the safety of the NHS holding such sensitive data given the fact the health service has previously been targeted by hackers. 

How will the NHS contact tracing app work? 

The NHS is rolling out its new coronavirus track-and-trace app today for testing across the Isle of Wight. This is how it will work

STEP ONE: DOWNLOAD THE APP

Britons will be able to download the app for free from the Department of Health website.

It is also available vi the Apple and Android app stores or via a link sent by email to NHS and public sector workers. 

It is being tested on the Isle of Wight before a potential roll-out across the country, probably one region at a time.

STEP TWO:  PROVIDE A PARTIAL POSTCODE

To register the person will be asked to provide the first half of their postcode, which shows the NHS the town or borough they live in – but not their name or their exact home address.

The user will be asked to allow the app to use the phone’s bluetooth to keep track of other phones it comes in to close to and for how long for. 

The NHS insists it will not be tracking location data – only phones

But while the Government has said ‘your postcode will not be used to track your location’ – it is less clear if they also mean your location will not be tracked at all.

STEP THREE: KEEP YOUR PHONE ON

The user will be told to keep their phone and Bluetooth switched on at all times and the app will run in the background without them doing anything.

The user will also be asked to allow ‘push notifications’ – which allows the NHS to send a person messages directly to their phones. 

When an individual goes out, the app will keep a log of every time it comes within Bluetooth range of another phone – but that person must also have the app. 

All IDs will be anonymous, with each app registered to a code rather than a person or address.

STEP FOUR: REPORT YOUR SYMPTOMS IF YOU BECOME ILL

If someone becomes ill they will be asked to log on to the app and input it. They will be asked if they have the common symptoms of coronavirus such as a high temperature and a continuous cough.

If no, nothing will happen. If yes, they will be told to order a coronavirus test.

STEP FIVE: APP SENDS YOUR DATA TO THE NHS SERVER FOR ANALYSIS BY EXPERTS

If it is a suspected coronavirus case these symptoms and the anonymous IDs of all the phones the user has come into contact with are automatically sent to an NHS server.

The NHS will analyse the data sent by the original sufferer using what it calls a ‘complex algorithm’. Although it is believed to be largely based on distance of between one and two metres, and the amount of time, probably around ten to 15 minutes.

STEP SIX: NHS SENDS A TAILORED YELLOW AND RED ALERTS TO CONTACTS 

It will then alert app users who have been in ‘significant contact’ with the original person with symptoms. For those who have been in contact with someone who has self reported symptoms, the app will send a yellow alert.

In early versions of the app, this warns the user that they have been in contact with someone who has reported symptoms.

If the original sufferer tests positive, everyone they have been in contact with will receive a stronger ‘red’ alert telling them to go into quarantine. The origInal sufferer triggers the red alert by entering a PIN issued by the NHS after they test positive. 

The Department of Health has not revealed exactly what the alerts will say. The Department of Health says: ‘The app will advise the public what action to take if a user has been close to someone who has become symptomatic. The advice on what people should do can be adapted as the context and approach evolves.’

The app will calculate how at risk a contact is by measuring their exposure to the person with symptoms. It will measure exposure by time and proximity. The NHS analysts will set the risk parameters that trigger alerts.

STEP SEVEN: ORIGINAL SUFFERER CONTACTED BY HUMAN NHS CONTACT TRACERS

The app will issue the original person with symptoms instructions on how to get a test using the software. 

One of around 10,000 UK human contact tracers may also get in contact on the phone and ask the app user how many people are in their household, where they have been and who they have been close to, that they know of, to find people who may not have been picked up by the bluetooth.

They will also try to contact these new contacts if required. 

STEP EIGHT: SUFFERER IS TESTED

Once the Covid-19 test arrives at the person’s home they will be expected to swab and then put it back in the post to an NHS testing centre. They may also be eligible for a home test by a health worker or visit one of the country’s test centres. The result should be available within 48 hours.

There are then two possible outcomes:

•  The person tests negative. In this case, your contacts are told via a message that it was a false notification.

• The person tests positive. In this case, your contacts are asked to isolate for 14 days, and get them into the clinical testing path. 

STEP NINE: HUMAN CONTACT TRACERS CONTACT AT-RISK CONTACTS OF ORIGINAL SUFFERER AND PLOT HOTSPOTS

The NHS’ army of human contact tracers will contact app users who have been in ‘significant contact’ with the original person with symptoms will be alerted through the app. They will provided with ‘health advice’ – which may include self isolation – based on the NHS’ assessment of their level of risk. Not everyone who has been in contact will be alerted based on the NHS algorithm. This advice will be constantly modified by doctors based on the current sutuation.

If a hotspot of new cases emerges, the users will be advised to take more urgent action, such as staying at home or even seeking medical attention. The NHS team of contact tracers will then individually contact everyone who has been in contact with the sufferer, either through the app or by other means.  

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