May 6, 2020 / 3:35 AM / 20 days ago

From bunting to the big picture: Isle of Wight becomes UK's virus app test bed

COWES, England (Reuters) - The coronavirus outbreak put paid to May Day festivities on the Isle of Wight this week and brought the spotlight to the island for a very different reason: it has been designated a testing ground for a tracing app aimed at stemming the virus’s spread.

UK National Health Service employee Anni Adams looks at new NHS app to trace contacts with people potentially infected with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) being trialled on Isle of Wight, Britain, May 5, 2020. REUTERS/Isla Binnie

Walking down the unusually quiet High Street in Cowes, where visitors usually step off the ferry from the south coast of England, local councillor and health service employee Anni Adams said her home town would have been preparing street parties.

“It would have been all down here, with bunting. It seems like yesterday we were meeting, umming and ahhing over whether to go ahead.”

Instead, Adams is one of the health service workers and council staff who on Tuesday became the first cohort to start downloading to their smart phones an app the British government hopes can help limit transmission of the virus, which has now infected more than 3.5 million people worldwide.

It is Britain’s answer to the kind of software which, along with wider testing and tracking, is seen as key to easing restrictions on movement that have paralysed economies.

Using it will be voluntary, giving the option to anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 or a positive test, to enter their details to start the tracing process.

Unlike similar projects in other European countries, Britain has chosen to process data centrally rather than on the devices themselves, where a higher level of privacy can be guaranteed.

Adams says she thinks she is one of many people to have had concerns about privacy, but Britain’s National Health Service - a unit of which developed the app - has experience of handling data, and anyway “it’s about a bigger picture at the moment.”

“If we can help get out of lockdown on the island and help save lives that’s more important to me than whether a person on the end of a phone knows I went to Waitrose yesterday,” she said, referring to a British supermarket. 

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Monday that data privacy and security were paramount in the app’s development.

The island was chosen for the project partly as national health services for all its 140,000-strong population are run by one single entity.

Ideally, more than half the population will download the app, its developer said on Monday, but takeup by 20% or more would give important insights into how the virus was spreading.

The rest of the island’s citizens will be invited to download the app from Thursday.

Reporting by Isla Binnie; editing by Stephen Addison

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