Contact-tracing and testing to begin on Isle of Wight under NHS proposal

The Government’s coronavirus test-and-trace strategy could be trialled first on the Isle of Wight, The Telegraph can reveal as NHS developers have said it would be too slow to wait for tech giants’ version of an app.

Plans drawn up by the NHS propose launching its new contact-tracing smartphone app on the island alongside human tracing teams and on-demand swab testing, as the start of a phased rollout of the national test-and-trace programme.

Under the proposals, the trial will happen while the island is still under lockdown, without easing restrictions in force across the rest of the country.

It is understood a final decision is yet to be made in Government over whether to give the Isle of Wight trials the green light.

Yesterday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he hoped the app would be launched to the public by “mid May”.

The news comes as Matthew Gould, the CEO of the health service’s digital arm NHSX, said the NHS had decided to build its own app because proposals from Apple and Google for a digital contact-tracing system would have taken longer.

NHSX has been building an app over the last few months that tracks when people come into close contact with each other using their phones’ Bluetooth connections.

The app was trialled successfully for the first time earlier this month in ‘closed tests’ with workers on an RAF base in Yorkshire.

The next step, under the NHS proposals, would be to launch a three-pronged ‘large scale, integrated contact-tracing and testing programme’ on the Isle of Wight.

The first prong of the strategy is releasing the app to islanders, which would allow them to report Covid-like symptoms and then send out alerts to the phones of people they have come into contact with, telling them to self-isolate.

The Telegraph understands the app would direct people reporting symptoms to where they can order viral test swabs.

The app would then be supplemented by Public Health England contact-tracing teams, who will further investigate whether other people not using the app have come into contact with infected users.

The last prong of the strategy would see the ‘widespread availability’ of swab testing kits for people on the island registering Covid-19 symptoms in the app.

Documents seen by The Telegraph said the Isle of Wight had been chosen because it was a ‘geographically-defined area’ under a single health trust, which made it easier to roll out a trial.

Another reason is that the island also has fewer Covid-19 cases compared to the rest of the country. The NHS proposal said that the app would be ‘most effective’ if over half of the island’s 140,000 population downloaded it, and that all smartphone-owners would be encouraged to take part in the voluntary scheme.

The document said: “The more people that use the app, the more effective it will be. We are confident that British people will want to use the app to protect the NHS and their loved ones.” 

It added: “This is not about a trial: we are phasing in things that will be launched across the UK following launch on the Isle of Wight.”

The proposal said the app would be made available to islanders via Apple and Google’s app stores, but won’t be initially searchable to the general public.

Instead, leaflets will be delivered to all Isle of Wight homes with a link residents can follow to get the app, where they will have to enter their post code to download it.

A Government spokesperson said: “Tracing and testing those with symptoms of Covid-19 is essential if we are to limit the spread of this virus and save lives. 

“The NHS is developing a contact tracing app, which alongside effective tracing and testing, is designed to give our country the confidence it needs to return to normality.   

“We are working with clinicians, scientists and other specialists to plan a safe, staged path to national rollout.”

Meanwhile, Mr Gould, who appeared before the Science and Technology parliamentary committee yesterday, said that it would not be possible for the country to come out of lockdown safely without the app, and that he regretted the NHS had not started work on it sooner. 

He said waiting for Google and Apple to produce their own apps would have taken longer still. 

Mr Gould added: “We are, I hope, on course to have the app ready for when it will be needed, for the moment when the country looks to have the tools to come out of lockdown safely.”

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