The concept of the state tracking our every movement is anathema to this magazine and, we assume, to its liberal former editor now resident in Downing Street. Nevertheless, such is the impasse over coronavirus that it is right the government should attempt to exit lockdown via the application of a voluntary ‘track and trace’ on mobile phones, trials of which began on the Isle of Wight this week. Track and trace appears to have worked for Asia so, given what’s at stake, it’s reasonable to try it here.
South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam — the countries which employed tracking and tracing from an early date — appear to have dealt with Covid-19 the most effectively, minimising the impact on their economics and societies. Meanwhile, those countries which have relied entirely on lockdown to flatten the curve — Italy, Spain, the US and Britain — have the highest death tolls. In the UK we were told that, because we were two weeks behind Italy, lockdown would leave us with a lower death toll. This did not happen. It’s worth asking if technology might offer a better alternative to quarantine.
There is a clear case for technology that would alert the health authorities to new Covid cases so that those affected can be protected and the rest of the country left at liberty. It is technically possible to collate the data in a way that does not raise undue concerns about freedom and privacy. The question is whether the NHS tech managers who are overseeing the project are up to the task.
The NHS, remember, is the organisation which in the 2000s wasted more than £10 billion on a new computer system which in the end had to be abandoned. In 2015 smartphones accredited by the NHS were found to be leaking patients’ data. Two years ago 150,000 patients were found to have had their data used for research purposes in spite of their objections. As Health Secretary, Matt Hancock has made the use of technology his trademark, but the NHS is more noted for its enthusiasm than its aptitude.
In theory, the new NHS tracking app rolled out on the Isle of Wight this week will allow warnings to be relayed swiftly to people who have been in contact with Covid-19 sufferers, telling them to self-isolate. This should be vastly more efficient than any tech-free attempt to track people who have spent time near a person infected with the virus. But the concept relies on a large proportion of the population bothering to download the app on to their phones. Since Singapore launched its own mobile phone app, TraceTogether, in March, only 25 per cent of the population has downloaded it. Even if people do download the app, it is not going to be effective unless they carry their phone everywhere and — crucially — have its data functions turned on.
The other problem with a coronavirus app is that the section of the population most at risk from the disease — the elderly — are the least likely to use smartphones. An Ofcom survey from 2015 suggested that pensioners who do have these phones are highly unlikely to use the data functions.
The NHS app uses ‘low-energy’ Bluetooth technology to record contacts between users. But Bluetooth throws up its own problems: many users keep the technology switched off to save battery power. Apple’s operating system rations Bluetooth partly for this reason. And apart from anything else, tech infrastructure in the UK is not quite at South Korean standards. Where track and trace has been most successful it has involved compulsory tracing for some users, especially visitors, mandatory wristbands for those who break the rules, and ‘smart city’ tech to trace infection outbreaks. It’s fair to say that the Isle of Wight isn’t quite there yet. Many of its residents would not want it to be.
Privacy issues are often dismissed as an obsession of oddballs who have something to hide. But governments have in the past taken surveillance powers designed to combat terrorists and murderers and used them against motorists who stray into bus lanes. In one infamous case, Poole council used anti-terror powers to spy on a couple it wrongfully suspected of falsifying their address in order to get their child into a favoured primary school. This is the sort of mission creep that ends with a police state. It must be clear from the outset that the new powers extend only to the control of Covid-19, or a similar pandemic, and that they can only be used for the stated purpose. On no account must they be used, for example, to catch people travelling more than five miles for their daily exercise.
With reservations, then, the Isle of Wight trial should go ahead — and we hope it will allow us an early exit from lockdown. But the government should see this as a trial. Much of Europe is easing its lockdown and restoring education to children without the use of track and trace apps. So far, they have managed to do this successfully — and developments should be closely watched by ministers. We must keep working hard on an alternative strategy for opening up the economy in the event that the app fails.