Could the secret to easing out of pandemic lockdown be in our pockets?
The European Commission thinks so. In guidelines published on Wednesday in the hope of co-ordinating the easing of restrictions by member states, it suggested that mobile phone apps could be a key route back to normality.
It works like this: mobile phones can detect and keep a log of all other phones they have been close to during the course of the day. Contact tracing apps can link this data to positive coronavirus diagnoses to warn people if they have crossed paths with someone with the disease.
This idea is as follows: if you have stood next to someone in the supermarket on Monday, and they test positive for the virus on Tuesday, your app should notify you that you may have been exposed and need to self-isolate and get yourself tested.
Instead of imposing blanket nationwide restrictions on public life, lockdowns could be targeted and limited
Potentially, this is more accurate, much quicker, and much less labour-intensive than having health service workers trace contacts by interviewing patients one by one. If combined with extensive testing – and the return of testing results quickly – such apps could be a tool to prevent the virus circulating in the community.
This is vital as countries begin to consider how to ease out of lockdown restrictions. As people begin to gather once again in schools or workplaces, it is considered inevitable that there will be a recurrence of outbreaks of Covid-19.
If those outbreaks are detected and responded to quickly enough, they could remain local outbreaks rather than spreading across the country. Instead of imposing blanket nationwide restrictions on public life, lockdowns could be targeted and limited to the specific towns or neighbourhoods where the disease has been detected.
Life elsewhere could continue. But it all depends on having the data to be able to know where the virus is. Remember: the virus is often spread by people who display few if any symptoms. Giving people the ability to know whether they have been exposed, and instructing them to isolate, could prevent them from spreading the virus to anyone else before they even know they have it.
The model was pioneered by Singapore, which launched an app called TraceTogether last month that tracks contacts through Bluetooth. There are other examples: South Korea traces contacts by using mobile phone location data, and similar apps have also been rolled out by Israel and India.
The commission has emphasised that any app deployed in Europe must follow strict European privacy and personal data protection rules. Any collection of location data, information on who individuals have been close to and information about personal health comes with big privacy risks.
In the wrong hands or if insufficiently protected, such data is clearly at risk of abuse, whether it’s from hackers if the system is not secure, or through government overreach.
Contact-tracing apps can only be part of the solution if there is public demand for them and significant national take-up
“Mobile tracing and warning applications should be subject to demanding transparency requirements, be deactivated as soon as the Covid-19 crisis is over and any remaining data erased,” the commission’s advice reads.
“Tracing close proximity between mobile devices should be allowed only on an anonymous and aggregated basis, without any tracking of citizens, and names of possibly infected persons should not be disclosed to other users.”
Respecting EU data laws means all app users would have to consent to the use of their data. That means contact-tracing apps can only be part of the solution if there is public demand for them and significant national take-up. Epidemiologists estimate that as much as 60 percent of the population need to use the app in order for it to be effective.
It’s also vital for EU countries to co-ordinate. It does not make sense to have 27 different governments developing 27 different apps when citizens can freely travel between countries, potentially spreading the disease. Ideally, countries should use the same app, or at least have apps that can work in sync with one another.
Until a vaccine is developed, various forms of restrictions are inevitable as countries beat down rebounds in coronavirus infections
There are already multiple separate efforts to develop a suitable app under way, including in Ireland, Poland, Austria and the United Kingdom. In the United States, Apple and Google have teamed up to work on a solution. Meanwhile, a German-led effort called Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing has brought together 130 researchers from eight countries in an attempt to forge one EU-wide app that follows the example of Singapore.
Until a vaccine is developed – which is unlikely to be for 12-18 months at least – various forms of restrictions are inevitable as countries beat down rebounds in coronavirus infections. There is no panacea. But contact-tracing apps could be one tool in a bundle to allow a smart, targeted approach to fighting the virus.