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May 22, 2020

Number 10 defends contact tracing as app faces delays

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P
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May 22, 2020

LONDON: Number 10 has sought to defend the track and trace programme being put in place for June 1, despite one expert warning it would be “crazy” not to use an app.

Downing Street announced on Thursday that 25,000 human contact tracers would be ready and trained come June 1, the earliest date for primary schools and some non-essential shops to reopen across England.

A Number 10 spokesman said the app would be ready within the “coming weeks”, saying piloting was still taking place on the Isle of Wight. Carsten Maple, professor of cyber systems engineering at the University of Warwick, said the promised NHS app was likely to have a strong uptake from the public and it would be wrong not to use it.

He said : “I think it would be crazy not to use an app. Our recent research has shown that, if designed correctly, the app could be very efficient and have strong uptake from the public.”

He said the number of contacts who needed to be traced using human contact tracers was dependent on how good the app was that supports them. “If there is a very efficient app, then we may not need the levels the Prime Minister is promising,” he said. “However, if there is no app, the figures mentioned may not be sufficient.”

Prof Maple said the app designed by the NHS’ digital arm, NHSX, “should be part of any solution for contact tracing”. He said employing manual contact tracers was working well in other countries but was costly and a dual approach was best.

The PM’s spokesman said on Thursday that human contact tracers were core to the programme. When asked if Health Secretary Matt Hancock was wrong to suggest the app was essential to a functioning track and trace system, he said: “Professor Jonathan Van-Tam (deputy chief medical officer in England) said earlier in the week that the test and trace element is the mainstay and the Health Secretary has been working very hard to recruit the test and tracers.”

On whether a manual system, without the support of an app, would be enough to hold back the virus, he added: “I’ve said the intention is to roll the app out in the coming weeks but I’ve also said there is certainly no requirement to have the app in order to have an effective trace and system, which the PM spoke about, in place by June 1.”

But another expert said an app would complement the work of the contact tracers, who could only identify the “known knowns” of a person with the virus, such as colleagues, family or friends.

Professor Keith Neal, the emeritus professor of the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, added: “The app identifies people who you don’t know – the known unknowns such as people in the supermarket or on public transport with you who you have no idea who they are and are never likely to meet again or know their contact details.”

It comes as Hancock is set to announce further details on who is eligible for a new antibody test, after a deal was reached with pharmaceutical giant Roche.