In Brief

NHS coronavirus app may track time spent outside


8 April 2020

An app being developed by the NHS to provide coronavirus contact-tracing may be retrofitted to incorporate functions that enforce social distancing.

Reported in Wired, the app is currently being developed by the British health service’s innovation unit NHSX. While the app was originally being developed to keep tabs of users’ encounters with their contacts, Wired says that its remit may have been expanded following a consultation with health secretary Matt Hancock and Patrick Vallance, the UK government's chief science adviser.

Under the reported expansion, the app would incorporate tracking of the time that people spend outside. The app would be able to nudge people to return to their homes with notifications, or else warn them if they were coming into proximity of others' who have downloaded the app.

Wired reports that the inclusion of such features remains under discussion. If taken on, the government would need to evaluate the legal and policy details of how this functionality could be implemented.

The app may also be used to provide "immunity passports" – documentation for those who have contracted and recovered from Covid-19.

While there has been criticism of the laxness with which some in the UK have adhered to lockdown regulations, the potential incorporation of enforcement features in the NHSX app raise a number of questions over privacy and civil liberties. The report will do little to assuage those concerned over the extra powers assumed by national governments during the coronavirus pandemic.

Silkie Carlo, director of the campaign group Big Brother Watch, has criticised the suggestion of incorporating enforcement measures in any NHS app, saying “a government-backed location tracking app risks the most insidious mission creep.”

An NHSX spokesperson has told Wired that "NHSX is not developing any product to be used for enforcement purposes."