If an advert for an official NHS Coronavirus contact-tracing app appeared in your Facebook news feed, would you install it? The answer is probably “it depends”. What most of us would want to know is what the app will do, how easy it’ll be to use, and why it’s so important.
The first two of these are technical questions with practical consequences.
A contact-tracing app needs a way to look back and see who has been exposed to carriers of the virus. There are choices about how to achieve this; the best approaches protect people’s privacy by focusing on proximity rather than location and by securely anonymising data to shield it from prying eyes.
If we’ve learned anything from the way the Internet has taken over our lives, it’s that convenience matters. Singapore’s much vaunted app only has 20% of people signed up, but it requires iPhone users to keep the app open and their phone unlocked. Apple and Google have offered governments a way to ensure new apps can operate unobtrusively and without draining your battery – essential for mass uptake.
But it’s the third question that matters most. Patriotism and community are pillars of our national life, and the NHS is one of our best-loved institutions. Will I carry a contact-tracing app around because a government Minister says I should? Probably not. But choosing to join in a simple, collective effort backed by the NHS to halt the spread of a disease that has deeply affected us all? Absolutely.
Writ large, this is the central dilemma for policymakers. Covid-19 has put countries in a terrible position – do nothing and watch in horror as the health service is overwhelmed, or lock the country down and count the staggering economic and social cost instead.
The careful application of technology offers a way out, at a price: dramatically increased surveillance. But in a three-way choice between overwhelming the NHS, collapsing the economy or living with more tracking and data-sharing, this is a price worth paying.
As well as contact-tracing apps, we would lean heavily on data and technology to organise armies of human contact-tracers to go with them; to prioritise, process and record test results; and – in time – to certify immunity and exempt some people from further testing.
We would aggregate, cross-reference and interrogate every source of data that could help understand how the virus is spreading and protect people at risk.
This would include real-world data from telecoms operators, transport networks and logistics platforms to show how people are moving and where hotspots might flare up. It would also take in aggregated, anonymised data from technology platforms, including search and shopping data, social-media trends and information from fitness devices, to paint a real-time picture of what’s happening.
All of this would be layered over a single view of the healthcare system to track capacity, anticipate how it will be stretched and deploy scarce resources.
Finally we would record as much medical and patient data as possible and share it widely – across the country and internationally – to help accelerate the search for effective therapeutics and an eventual vaccine.
Some will argue that such a dramatic increase in tracking and data-sharing is unacceptable in a liberal democracy. Of course, in the face of any threat to our security we should think twice about sacrificing the freedoms and values that define us. But Covid-19 is not an ideology, and using the technologies available to us is common sense, not capitulation.
Ultimately, the question isn’t whether governments should take these steps, but rather whether they can do so competently and not fail at their one shot to earn the public’s trust. We need the right protections to ensure that personal data is anonymised, protected and destroyed once it is no longer needed. We need systems that work at scale, are easy to use and that deliver direct, actionable insights to people on the front line. And we need our leaders to level with the public about how difficult these trade-offs are.
The British public loves the NHS and we aren’t afraid to show it. Using technology to protect the heroes in our health service and keep our friends and neighbours safe should make us all proud.