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Covid-19: Tracking

Volume 806: debated on Wednesday 30 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the use of Exposure Notifications Express in mobile telephone operating systems for the tracking of COVID-19.

My Lords, engineers at the Department for Health and Social Care are undertaking an initial assessment of the Exposure Notifications Express capability in consultation with Apple. At this stage, the assessment is paper-based, as software is not available outside the United States. We anticipate ENS becoming available in European countries in one or two months. We continue to assess this capability as information becomes available.

My Lords, it is welcome that the Government have finally decided to move to a decentralised system. Apart from the number of downloads, what success criteria that can be attributable to the Covid-19 app have the Government set, how will these be measured and where will the public be able to see progress against those criteria?

My Lords, the ultimate aim of the app is to break the chain of transmission. That is done through a number of ways. One is to provide a proximity alert for those who spend time with people who have tested positive. It also has a check-in capability to help our track and trace efforts, and we are building more applications on it all the time. One encouraging statistic is that until 10 o’clock yesterday, there were 6.5 million check-ins through the app. This is an astonishing number and it shows that those who are socialising are using the app.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on introducing this system of track and trace using apps. I encourage my noble friend to look carefully at introducing as soon as possible the express system available in the US and having it integrated into the telephones. He may not be aware that a number of people with whom I am in contact have downloaded the current app, found that it drains their batteries too quickly, and have therefore deleted it. Does he agree that if the express system were integrated into the app, it would do less damage to the battery and it would be more likely that people would stay with it?

My Lords, we are looking carefully at the Apple express system. It does not contain the substantial investment in the algorithm from the Alan Turing Institute that gives our own app the sensitivity and protection that phone users are seeking from such a device. We have looked carefully and worked extremely intensely with Apple on the battery and our understanding is that the app does not have a large impact on battery use.

When will the equality impact assessment be published for the trial in Newham of the test and trace app that uses the Google-Apple technology?

The results of the Newham trial are analytical rather than about the privacy assessment, which has already been published. What we learned from Newham was that security concerns among that community were profound and, therefore, we shaped our marketing in order to address those concerns.

My Lords, is not this new system available only on newer smartphones, which older people and poorer people are less likely to possess? They are the most vulnerable. Is there not a danger of this becoming yet another expensive and useless gimmick?

Perhaps I may reassure the noble Lord that the NHS app is usable by nine out of 10 smartphones. On average, 87% of Apple and Android phones can download the NHS app. The Apple express service uses a smaller segment of the population because it requires more modern software in the phones.

My Lords, what have the Government done to ensure that the new NHS app can read only official QR codes at venues and not scams that have the potential to corrupt a person’s phone or grab their data and cause privacy issues? How can users recognise whether a QR code is genuine and is any guidance available to help them to be cautious?

I reassure the noble Baroness that the use of non-official QR codes is rejected by the app. I have had personal experience of this. We have had downloaded 600,000 of the official QR codes—an astonishing figure. The use of those codes seems to have been embraced and adopted. I have one at my office and it works extremely well.

I confess that I am very confused by the answer given by the Minister to my noble friend Lord Foulkes about older phones. I have a friend who was excited about being able to download the app; her phone is only two or three years old but it was too old to download the app. I have to say that I am sceptical of the figures that the noble Lord has given us. Certainly, some who may or may not be in the lower income bracket, may be older, or may just be careful and have phones bought in 2015, seem unable to download the app at all. Did the noble Lord say there were two apps? This is confusing and I am not sure that it will help.

My Lords, I completely understand the concerns of those who may be struggling to download the app but I reassure the noble Baroness that the current app is supported by iOS versions 13.5 and higher, and by Android Marshmallow version 6.0. That covers by far the vast majority of phones. As I said, 89% of phones should support the app. They include, for instance, Apple iPhone 6S and above—a huge proportion of phones. We are debating a new initiative by Apple to bring in their own protocol that is particularly directed at developing countries which may not be able to support their own app. That initiative is not targeted at the UK. We believe that it may have some relevance in supporting downloads of the NHS app because the alerts created can perhaps be directed to the download site on the iPhone store to encourage those in the UK who have not yet downloaded the NHS app. The Apple initiative is a positive development that will be particularly well used in developing countries.

Have the Government set a target for the number of people who need to download the NHS Covid app for it to be an effective solution for suppressing the virus? If so, what is the target and what are they doing to reach it, should it exist? More generally, what are they doing to increase the number of people using the app?

My Lords, there is no particular target where the app becomes relevant or non-relevant. Some 14 million downloads to date is a remarkable number and the app is already proving effective, with a substantial number of people having received notifications from the proximity device and who are now abiding by isolation measures. We have a massive marketing campaign that has been seen by 97% of the population and ongoing activity, particularly among hard-to-reach communities and the young, to support the downloading and use of the app.

What is the point of the new Covid app if testing takes seven days to produce a result and, by the time the person is notified that they were in contact with someone infected, they are likely to be displaying symptoms already and will know for themselves?

My Lords, the point of the app is to support our tracing efforts and provide security among those who are in areas that are not socially distanced in order to alert them when they have been near someone who has recently had a test. The test results are not, as the noble Lord described, typically available after seven days. The figure is much lower and we have already found enormous support for the use of the app.