Tech could help highlight potential cases much faster
Scientists advising the British government about the novel coronavirus say a smartphone app that alerts users when they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive could play a "critical role "in limiting the extent of lockdowns.
The journal Science has published a study carried out by the Big Data Institute at the University of Oxford's and Nuffield Department of Medicine, which would make use of historic GPS tracking data.
Should an app user start to feel unwell, they could request a home test, and if the result is positive, at the touch of a button everyone who has come into contact with them in recent days could be informed of the news, saving huge amounts of time in getting the information circulated.
They would not be told who it was that had set off the warning, but those who might have been affected would be told to start self-isolating as soon as possible, and workplaces or transport services would also be made aware that they needed to decontaminate.
"The constrictions that we're currently under place (many people) under severe strain," said the paper's co-lead Professor Christophe Fraser.
"We need a mobile contact tracing app to urgently support health services to control coronavirus transmission, target interventions and keep people safe.
"If you have the ability with a bit more information and the use of an app to relax a lockdown, that could provide very substantial and direct benefits. Also I think a substantial number of lives can be saved."
People would not be forced to sign up, but the feature could be incorporated into wider novel coronavirus-related information apps, and also include a facility for ordering food and medical supplies to encourage use.
Similar technology has been used during the outbreak in China, with people only being allowed to access public spaces or public transport if they had installed the app.
The head of the NHS digital arm NHSX said the idea was something that was under consideration.
"NHSX is looking at whether app-based solutions might be helpful in tracking and managing coronavirus, and we have assembled expertise from inside and outside the organization to do this as rapidly as possible," said Matthew Gould.
Singapore has led the way with the use of an app called TraceTogether, which gives people red or green status to let them know if they need to self-isolate. Experts have given the proposed app a guarded welcome, while playing down expectations.
"This is a theoretical modelling paper," said Professor Keith Neal of the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases, University of Nottingham.
"It does not provide any direct evidence as such that mobile apps could control epidemics without the need for quarantines. But it is important in getting the UK to debate what has already been done elsewhere."