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Government confirms plan for new NHS app to track if you've been near Covid-19

The government has confirmed it is planning an unprecedented app in the UK to track citizens and check if they’ve been near coronavirus.

The new NHS app would use your phone’s location data to record where you have been in the past few days.

Anyone who has had significant contact with someone with Covid-19 would receive an alert advising them to get tested.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock tonight said data from the app would be handled with “the highest ethical and security standards”, and used only for NHS care and research.

But Mr Hancock – who said it is currently being tested – gave no timescale for how long the app will take to roll out or exactly what the rules will be.

Anyone who has had significant contact with someone with Covid-19 would receive an alert (file photo)

And Labour warned it was “vital” to have “proper safeguards” over the huge cache of data about where millions of citizens have been and their health.

Mr Hancock’s comments, at the daily No10 press briefing, confirm reports about the app in the Sunday Times.

The newspaper said the app would use Bluetooth to tell its users if they have been near someone who has tested positive for the deadly bug.

Google and Apple have been helping the NHS to develop the system, according to the newspaper.

Among measures reportedly being considered to encourage take-up of the app are making it a condition of returning to work and normal home life.

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Coronavirus outbreak

If used widely and combined with better testing, it could hold the key to eventually lifting the UK’s lockdown measures.

Mr Hancock said: “If you become unwell with the symptoms of coronavirus you can securely tell this new NHS app.

“The app will then send an alert anonymously to other app users that you’ve been in significant contact with over the past few days, even before you have symptoms so that they know and can act accordingly.

“All data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards and would only be used for NHS care and research and we won’t hold it any longer than it’s needed.”

The source code will be published too, he said.

Mr Hancock said: “If you become unwell with the symptoms of coronavirus you can securely tell this new NHS app”

Downing Street has repeatedly refused to say if the government is already using phone location data to track if the lockdown is working.

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Community testing and contact tracing must be a key element in ongoing efforts to suppress the virus – using modern technology has to be part of that strategy.

“However, it is also vital to have the proper safeguards and transparency when it comes to capturing or mapping people’s data.

“Which is why it’s vital that a way is found for the work of Parliament and democratic oversight to continue.”

Acting Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said the app was “likely to be crucial” and a “welcome step to protect public health”.

But he added: “There must be complete transparency around how the data will be stored and used, coupled with watertight guarantees that data will be anonymised, kept for the shortest possible time, and won’t be shared between government departments.

“Any proposal on the use of mobile phone data or other technology to track people must also be scrutinised properly by MPs before a final decision is made, further strengthening our argument that Parliament should be recalled urgently.”

He said the government is with the world’s leading tech companies and experts in clinical safety and digital ethics “so that we can get this right”.

He added: “The more people who get involved then the better informed our response to coronavirus will be and the better we can protect the NHS.”

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