On 24th September, the government will be launching a new coronavirus ‘track and trace’ app in England and Wales. The app will work by people registering their visits to hospitality venues by scanning a unique QR code using their smartphones. Following code detection, visitors can reply to the automatic message with their name and the number of people in their party. Other communal buildings such as universities, hospitals and libraries will also be asked to display the QR code posters. This version of contract-tracing will replace the initial NHS ‘track and trace’ model which was scrapped on 18th June. The original version, trialled in the Isle of Wight and based upon Bluetooth signalling technology, detected only 4% of iPhones in contrast to identifying 75% of Androids. However, by merging the systems of Apple and Google, 99% of mobile phones were detected, and thus, the flawed Apple iOS system was overhauled.
It is this new conjoined system which will be introduced in late September. It may be run alongside, or, indeed, used in preference of the manual method of ‘track and trace’ method which has been in operation since 28th May. Until this date, hospitality venues have been relying upon customers registering with their name, contact details and the number of people in their party with collected data stored for up to 21 days. The ‘track and trace’ method has been reasonably successful, with 87% of the people between the 27th August and the 2nd September contacted and 69.2% of their relevant contacts reached and asked to self-isolate. SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), who advises the government, has admitted that, in order for ‘track and trace’ to be effective, at least 80% of contacts would need to abide by self-isolation advice in the event of infection amongst their contact network. This new NHS app will not only alert those who have downloaded and used the app if they have been in close proximity to an infected person, but it will also provide for a variety of other features in a bid to reduce the transmission rate. These features include functions such as the QR code notifying visitors if there has been an outbreak at the venue in question, alongside using postcode information to detail the number of known cases in a user’s area. A personalised risk score for the user can also be calculated based upon their unique medical profile which will be aligned relative to the level of risk the user is currently encountering. Furthermore, the app will allow for more robust oversight of care, including information ranging from directing the user should they experience any COVID-19 symptoms to ordering a test.
The new app will be launched just before the start of the academic year for many university students. The return of students has been a hot topic of concern for many. A recent increase in coronavirus cases in the UK was reported on the 11th September, with news of the ‘R’ number rising above 1 despite the academic year not yet having started. Many fear that the socialising of young people in close quarters will further perpetuate the infection rate and result in the number of cases of COVID-19 skyrocketing.
However, several factors must be considered when discussing the apparent rise in cases. Firstly, the number of cases reported at the peak was underestimated – massively. Testing focused mostly on hospitalised patients which meant that, of the 100,000 new daily UK cases at the end of March, estimated by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, only 5% were reported. So, while 3,539 new cases were reported on the 11th of September in the UK, this is negligible in comparison to the extent of the cases emerging in March. Furthermore, it is hard to distinguish whether the rate of infection has increased or more cases are simply being detected, with the number of tests performed in June being 80% higher than in March.
The usability of this app must also be considered. Navigating the functions of the new app will most likely present a considerable obstacle to the elderly population, in contrast to the tech-savvy millennials and Gen Zs. Public Health England reported ‘a particularly steep increase’ in infection rate amongst the elderly population (those aged 85 and over) who are at a considerably higher risk of becoming severely ill with the virus. However, it is amongst the younger population, or those falling into the 20 to 39-year-old age bracket, who make up the greatest increase to the number of new cases reported. Indeed, young people may be put at an elevated risk of contracting the virus due to relying on jobs which involve exposure to a high volume of people, such as in hospitality and leisure. Although a higher number of new cases are made up of the younger generations, there has been no notable increase to hospital admissions. This begs the question of who the app is designed to protect. By default, greater regulation through digitalised tracking will, theoretically, reduce the number of cases overall. However, many have been led to wonder if the government is using digitalised tracking as a subterfuge to roll out its original support of ‘herd immunity’. Of course, this remains as hearsay. But, should the government intend to use the younger, and more physically robust population as the primary tools of herd immunity, economic recovery can continue with leisure venues and retailers remaining open while hospital admissions are kept low.