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Matt Hancock says NHS already testing coronavirus app as UK death toll passes 10,000

3 min read

The NHS is already testing a new app to alert people if they have been in contact with someone with coronavirus, the Health Secretary has announced.

Matt Hancock told the daily Downing Street press conference - held as the UK's official coronavirus death toll passed 10,000 - that a new smartphone tool would alert users when they have had “significant contact” with someone who has been infected with Covid-19.

The move will form part of efforts to ramp up so-called ‘contact tracing’, which ministers believe will allow them to more effectively map the spread of the coronavirus and eventually ease the nationwide lockdown.

Mr Hancock said the “new NHS app for contact tracing” would represent “the next step” in the UK’s response to the pandemic.

The Health Secretary said: “If you become unwell with the symptoms of coronavirus, you can securely tell this new NHS app and the app will then send an alert anonymously to other app users that you have been in significant contact over the past few days, even before you had symptoms, so that they know and can act accordingly.”

The World Health Organisation’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has said contact tracing “must be the backbone of the response in every country”, as governments around the world battle to respond to the outbreak.

On Friday, tech giants Apple and Google said they would join forces to create a unified tracking “platform” across both Android and iOS devices to allow users to receive alerts when they come near someone who is infected.

'We are working closely with the world’s leading tech companies and renowned experts in clinical safety and digital ethics so we can get this right' - Matt Hancock

But the innovations are likely to raise a string of privacy concerns, with former MI5 boss Lord Evans telling the Sunday Times that such technology could represent a “severe intrusion into personal privacy”.

He added: “People may consider the kind of surveillance needed to keep Covid-19 at bay a price worth paying, but public confidence will only be retained in the longer term if the right controls and accountability are in place.”

In a bid to allay those fears, Mr Hancock said: “All data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards and would only be used for NHS care and research and we won’t hold it any longer than it is needed. And as part of our commitment to transparency we will be publishing the source code too.”

He said: “We are already testing this app and as we do this we are working closely with the world’s leading tech companies and renowned experts in clinical safety and digital ethics so we can get this right.”

The forthcoming NHS app comes as ministers search for a path out of the UK-wide lockdown, which aims to ease pressure on the health service while the spread of the virus is reaching its peak.

There are concerns that a prolonged lockdown could lead to mounting social problems, including unemployment, poor mental health and a surge in domestic violence.

Mr Hancock on Sunday confirmed that 282,374 people had now been tested for coronavirus in the UK, with 84,279 testing positive.

The number of hospital admissions for those with coronavirus symptoms now stands at 19.945, while the death toll for those admitted to hospital who have tested positive climbed to 10,612.

The Health Secretary said: "Today marks a somber day in the impact of this disease, as we join the list of countries who have seen more than 10,000 deaths related to coronavirus.

"The fact that over 10,000 people have now lost their lives to this invisible killer demonstrates just how serious coronavirus is."

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