U.K. Relaunches Virus-Tracking App After First Effort Failed

Boris Johnson’s U.K. government is restarting trials of its much-delayed coronavirus-tracing app, after a previous effort was abandoned, with a focus on privacy and helping people to track their own movements.

The app’s central function is to use the phone’s Bluetooth signal to record other app users who have been less than 2 meters away for more than 15 minutes. That will ultimately allow the system to notify people that they’ve been in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus even when they don’t know them -- such as on public transport.

“There is no silver bullet when it comes to tackling coronavirus,” Dido Harding, executive chair of the National Health Service’s test and trace program, said in a statement. “The app is a great step forward and will complement all of the work we are doing with local areas across the country to reach more people in their communities.”

Identifying people who may have been infected and isolating them without locking down the whole country is crucial to the government’s efforts to restart the economy. Survey data released Thursday revealed the difficulties the U.K. had tracking the pandemic in its early stages, when limited testing capacity was used only for key workers and hospital patients.

The survey showed that 3.4 million people in England, or 6% of the population, have had coronavirus -- more than 12 times as many people as have officially tested positive. The government’s problem is further complicated by those who don’t realize they’re infected, given that a third of the people identified by the survey reported having had no symptoms.

Trials

But there’s no public timetable for a national rollout of the app, despite ministers previously calling it an essential component of a functioning infection-tracing regime. People in Newham, east London, one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the country, will join users in the Isle of Wight in testing the app.

The app was originally scheduled for release mid-May, but technical problems meant the developers were forced to abandon their centralized data-collection model in favor of a decentralized approach proposed by Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google. That means no data is sent to government computers without the user’s permission.

The app will allow users to scan barcodes when they visit bars, cafes and other public locations. It will also enable people to book tests for the virus, and help them to keep track of how much longer they need to self-isolate for if they test positive.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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