Trials are beginning on a new coronavirus contact-tracing app which ministers say will save lives and help lift Britain out of lockdown.
NHS and council staff on the Isle of Wight are being urged to download the NHS Covid-19 smart phone app from Tuesday with the rest of the island’s population invited to follow from Thursday.
If the tests are successful it could be rolled out across the country within weeks as ministers seek to shape a strategy to allow some economic activity to resume, with the long-awaited “roadmap” for easing lockdown being published on Sunday.
The Sun reported that industry has been warned some social distancing measures will be required for between six months to a year, while doctors fear there may be an autumnal or winter Covid-19 peak.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak said spending £8 billion on the furlough scheme to support workers through the pandemic was “not a sustainable situation which is why, as soon as the time is right, we want to get people back to work and the economy fired up again”.
But unions attacked the Government’s plans to ensure social distancing in the workplace by reduced hot-desking, closing office lifts and canteens and putting tape on floors to mark where people should stand, saying there was no binding requirement on employers to ensure safety.
The number of people in the UK dying after testing positive for Covid rose by 288 in the 24 hours to 5pm on Sunday, the lowest day-on-day increase since the end of March although ministers warned it may reflect a lag in reporting over the weekend.
— NHS (@NHSuk) May 4, 2020
Announcing the app trial, Health Secretary Matt Hancock appealed to everyone on the island who was able to download the app to do so.
“I know that the people of the Isle of Wight will embrace this with enthusiasm because by embarking on this project and by embracing test, track and trace, you will be saving lives,” he said.
The “test, track and trace” programme would allow the Government to take a “more targeted approach” to the lockdown while still containing the disease, he added.
But Mr Hancock faced resistance from some Tory MPs concerned at the trial’s implications for civil liberties over the gathering of data on individuals’ movements.
In the Commons, Marcus Fysh warned “widespread surveillance” was “not acceptable” in Britain, and it was essential the system was voluntary.
“We’re not a people who take well to surveillance and it’s a little ironic that the country that has probably been surveilling its population more than any other appears to have been the source of this virus,” he said, referring to China.
The app uses Bluetooth to track and trace contacts between users – alerting people if someone they interacted with has displayed symptoms or tested positive for the virus
Officials insist it is designed with privacy and security “front of mind” with the data stored on an individual’s phone until the point they contact the NHS to report symptoms and request a test.
However, Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen said the Government should look at decentralised app models – where contact-tracing data stays on a user’s device.
“We’re extremely concerned that the Government may be planning to route private data through a central database, opening the door to pervasive state surveillance and privacy infringement, with potentially discriminatory effects,” she said.
In other developments:
– Public Health England has launched a review into how factors such as ethnicity, gender and obesity can affect people’s vulnerability to coronavirus.
– The Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and deputy chief medical officer for England Dr Jenny Harries will give evidence to MPs on Tuesday on progress towards easing the lockdown.
– Prime Minister Boris Johnson told an online pledging conference the race to develop a vaccine was the “most urgent shared endeavour of our lifetimes” as he called on nations to “pull together” in response to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urged Boris Johnson to forge a national consensus on the next phase of the Government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Mr Johnson is expected to reaffirm the continuation of social distancing measures at the second three-week review on Thursday before setting out his “roadmap” on Sunday.
Sir Keir said: “We want to support the Government to get this right and that is why we need a national consensus on what happens next.”
It comes as the Government faces growing concern among Conservative MPs at the mounting economic damage the lockdown restrictions are causing.
UK: Privacy must not be 'another casualty' of the virushttps://t.co/il8AwrcCfv
— News From Amnesty (@NewsFromAmnesty) May 4, 2020
Sir Charles Walker urged ministers to “do some modelling” in relation to the impact on the 5.9 million privately-owned businesses in the UK.
“If hundreds of thousands of those businesses go under, or a million or more, we will unleash a tidal wave of human misery. Unemployment of 12% is four million people,” he said.
Former cabinet minister Sir John Redwood said people were “living in fear” their employers could go out of business.
“It’s all too easy for us MPs with a guaranteed high salary paid into our bank accounts every month whether the economy does well or badly to be a little too dismissive of the struggles going on for people,” Sir John said.