Coronavirus: How could contact tracing apps help the UK out of lockdown?

Technology such as smartphone apps could power contact tracing and help end the coronavirus lockdown, scientists have said.

One scientist has argued that apps focused on contact tracing – alerting people when they have been in contact with someone with Covid-19 – could help get the UK out of lockdown more quickly.

But he also warned that the number of virus cases would need to drop to much lower levels before contact tracing can be effective enough to stop a further spread.

Professor Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said “a combination of some social distancing measures, extensive testing and automated contact tracing” could allow people to return to more regular social activities as well as provide more control of the virus outbreak.

“If we are to lift the lockdown, without returning to the rapid increase in cases seen previously, we need to introduce measures that will be more effective than those offered before the lockdown,” Prof Hibberd told the PA news agency.

“The testing and contact tracing are to ensure that more people who are infectious stay at home and do not transmit to others than was previously the case.”

He added that the use of automated contact tracing in an app had already been successful in parts of Asia.

“The contact tracing has been done well in countries such as Singapore, where it has played an important part in keeping the number of cases lower and manageable by the health service. Singapore has now introduced an app – TraceTogether – to help automate this process.

“This app uses the Bluetooth signal from your phone to identify other TraceTogether users that have been in contact distance with you. If you identify yourself as positive for Sars-CoV-2 you can change your status and then other Trace Together users can be notified if they have been in contact with you.

“If they are identified as a contact, they should get tested to see if they are Sars-CoV-2 positive. All positive cases should quarantine themselves.”

But he said the number of new cases of Covid-19 will need to drop significantly first – to such a level that new cases are monitored, the case is isolated and all immediate contacts are traced – if any such measures were to be effective.

“When the number of cases start to drop sufficiently as a result of our current lockdown procedures, we can start to think about what to do next,” he said.

“Perhaps by May, with more accurate identification of cases through large-scale diagnostics, antibody testing to find who is now immune protected, more understanding of quarantining, some social distance measures and increased NHS capacity, we should be in a much better position to keep on top of this outbreak than we were in March.”

Last week, a study by the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Population Health published in the journal Science proposes an app that uses Bluetooth to keep a log of all other app users a person has been in close proximity with over a few days.

When an individual tests positive for Covid-19, the app can then be used to notify anyone who has been near them anonymously and advise them to go home and self-isolate as a precaution against any further spread.

Data is already being used to measure how people are responding to social distancing measures.

Google has begun publishing anonymous location data from services such as Google Maps, showing how visits to public places have dropped since lockdown measures were introduced.

The reports harness data traditionally used in apps such as Google Maps to tell users when places will busiest, as well as update driving routes based on traffic when being used for navigation.