UK will begin testing its COVID-19 tracking app this week

Christine Fisher
Contributing Writer
HEREFORD, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 30, 2020: A sign giving directions o the Coronavirus Assessment Area is seen in the grounds of Hereford Hospital, Herefordshire on April 30, 2020.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Jim Wood / Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Jim Wood/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

The UK will begin testing its COVID-19 tracking app this week. To start, the National Health Service (NHS) will pilot the app on the Isle of Wight, along with more testing and broader contact tracing efforts, Reuters reports.

Health service and council staff on the island will have access to the app beginning Tuesday. The rest of the 140,000 residents will be able to download the app starting Thursday. Ideally more than half the population will use the app, but NHS officials told Reuters that as long as more than 20 percent use it, the NHS will be able to gather important insights into how the virus is spreading.

As previously reported, the UK will break from the Apple-Google “decentralized” approach. Instead, the NHS’s technology group NHSX chose a centralized model, in which a list of contacts made via Bluetooth signals will be stored on users’ devices as anonymous tokens. If a user has symptoms or tests positive, the contacts can be submitted to the app, which analyzes the data and sends notifications if necessary.

While critics say the centralized approach raises privacy concerns, NHSX CEO Matthew Gould told Reuters that the group “put privacy right at the heart” of the app. He explained that the app doesn’t know who users are, where they are or who they’ve been near. Britain’s Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham pointed out that the centralized approach will allow the UK to gather more insights into the virus, something a decentralized approach might limit.

Just yesterday, France announced that it will begin testing its COVID-19 tracking app beginning May 11th, and Australia has already launched its own version. In the US, a group of senators is working on a bill that would set requirements for data collection and transparency in COVID-19 tracking apps, and Apple and Google have outlined how public health authorities around the world can use their upcoming tracking system to preserve user privacy.