Coronavirus tracing app developed by NHS could be ready in next fortnight
However, the app will not be ready before next week’s review of the lockdown
Matthew Gould, CEO of the NHSX digital arm, said the contact tracing technology would be ready in “two to three weeks”.
The app, backed by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is a key plank of ministers’ plans to prevent a second peak in coronavirus cases.
However, it will not be finished before 7 May, when ministers are legally bound to review the lockdown.
Once downloaded, the app will detect when two smartphones are within 2m of each other, and for how long.
Users would receive an amber warning if the corresponding user shows symptoms or a red warning if they test positive.
Other countries such as Singapore and Iceland have already developed similar apps.
Giving evidence to MPs on the Commons Science and Technology Committee, Mr Gould played down the idea that the app would initially be rolled out nationwide.
Instead, it was likely to be tested in a number of “small” geographical areas, he said.
He told MPs: “I would expect it technically to be ready for wider deployment in two to three weeks. Whether it is then deployed depends on the wider strategy.”
That strategy includes other restrictions imposed by the government, he said, including whether or not social distancing measures were still in place.
He also predicted that, in order for the app to gain enough users to be successful, ministers would have to send a tough message to the public.
Experts believe between 60 and 80 per cent of smartphone users would have to download the app to successfully slow the spread of the disease.
Even then, users would have to obey strict rules and self-isolate if they received a message that they had been in contact with someone who was infected.
Mr Gould admitted that it would be “tough” to get 80 per cent of smartphone users to install the contact-tracing app.
Urging individuals to use the technology had to be part of the government’s “core message” around Covid-19, he said.
He said: “The message needs to be: if you want to keep your family and yourselves safe, if you want to protect the NHS and stop it being overwhelmed and at the same time get the country back and get the economy moving, the app is going to be an essential part of the strategy for doing that.”
The move prompted concerns from senior MPs over privacy and human rights concerns.
Harriet Harman, chair of the joint committee on human rights, wrote to Mr Hancock to call for time limits and transparency on use of people's personal data.
She said MP were supportive of efforts to banish the virus but said it was vital that "such measures only interfere with human rights to the extent necessary".
Earlier, Professor Susan Michie, from University College London, who sits on a subcommittee of the Sage group, which advises the government, dismissed the idea that those who have already had coronavirus would be able to secure an immunity “passport”.
Her criticism was shared by Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, who warned that scientists won’t know for up to a year how long immunity to Covid-19 lasts.
He told MPs that scientists “haven’t the foggiest notion” of what a positive test for a past case of Covid-19 would mean for future immunity.