Contact tracing app: One in four must use to curb Covid-19 spread

Data will be held on phone, not centrally, to 'mitigate' data protection concerns – HSE

At least one-quarter of the population will have to use the contact tracing app being developed by the Health Service Executive in order for it to work in helping to curb the spread of Covid-19, according to Minister for Health Simon Harris.

Internationally, the target adoption rates for tracker apps has been estimated at up to 60 per cent of the population, but Mr Harris says a US app similar to the one being developed by the HSE needs at least a 25 per cent uptake in order to have a significant impact on the rate of infection.

“The fact is that for contact tracing operations, every additional contact that the app can identify will enhance our existing contact tracing processes. The more people that use the app, the more effective it will be.”

The model Ireland is using for its contact tracing app will be "less intrusive" than the types being developed in other countries, according to HSE chief executive Paul Reid, speaking on Sunday.


The model, similar to the approach being followed in Germany, which retains data on the mobile phone rather than being centrally collected, will "mitigate" any data protection concerns, he said.

The HSE would engage with the Data Protection Commissioner on privacy aspects and was aiming to have the app ready by the end of May.

Mr Reid said the app would work on Bluetooth technology and users would have the option of providing details of their phone number.

The HSE is continuing to work with Apple and Google to ensure these companies can provide the support required for the plan, he added.

The app will work with a smartphone that is generally less than five years old.

In some countries that have already developed apps, the take-up has been disappointing, but the technology is seen as a useful supplement to manual tracing of contacts of people who become infected.

The Irish team developing the app is working closely with EU counterparts and the national health service in the UK to make sure the technology can be used across borders, according to the Minister.

The app is to undergo extensive testing and trialling over the coming weeks, Mr Harris said in a briefing note on the project.

The focus of contact tracing services is on the proximity between two app users within critical windows of time but location data from the app is “not of interest” to the HSE, he said.

Use of the app will be limited to people aged 16 years or over as this is the digital age of consent.

While the app will not record or collect exact location information, users would be given the option of volunteering their “general locality”, according to Mr Harris.

As part of testing procedures, up to 2,000 volunteers will install and use the app for a period of time.

In relation to the cross-border use of the app, Mr Harris said inter-operability between EU member states and use of the app across the Border “presents specific challenges which have yet to be addressed”.

“The specific challenge of North-South travel in Ireland and across the Irish Sea has been highlighted in EU meetings convened to discuss eHealth and the app.”

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times