Matthew Gould, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NHSx, the digital unit of UK’s National Health Service (NHS) wrote in a blog post on 24 April that an ethics advisory board will be established to oversee the making of a new contact tracing app. The board will be chaired by Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery from the University College London who used to head the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

The NHS contact tracing app

According to Gould, the app aims to digitize the process of informing individuals if they have been in touch with anyone infected with coronavirus and if they will be at risk of becoming ill as a result. So, the public can take precaution to protect themselves and reduce virus transmission during COVID-19 pandemic. The software was co-developed by epidemiologists, mathematical modellers and ethicists at Oxford University’s Nuffield Departments of Medicine and Population Health and will run on Bluetooth.

Once it’s installed, it will automatically start capturing the distance between user and other phones with the same app. If an individual begin experiencing certain symptoms, the app will give them the option of informing the NHS to run risk analysis and alert other app users. On the other hand, if the app inform a user they have been in close contact with someone who experienced symptoms, they will be asked to self-isolate or take other appropriate actions depending on respective circumstance.

A serious note on transparency, privacy and technical assurance

Gould did mention all information recorded during the process of contact tracing will be kept anonymous and stored securely in users’ phones. However, if any data is ever be used in the near future, they will only be for the purpose of “NHS care, management, evaluation and research”. He promised NHS will be “totally open and transparent” as they value users’ privacy. They will adhere to the law around the use public data, including the Data Protection Act and will explain their intension of using them.

As such, they are setting up the ethics advisory board and at the same time, the Information Commissioner; experts from the National Data Guardian’s Panel and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, as well as representatives from Understanding Patient Data and other volunteers will be consulted to gather patient and public opinions on the development of the app.

Gould added although the app was built in a short time due to demand, they will not compromise its efficacy and underplay the importance of ethics. An independent technical assurance board consisting of members with expertise in mobile app design, data governance and clinical safety, will also be in place. Overall, as the app improves over time, the NHS will also request the public to voluntarily submit additional details which the authority can use to recognize outbreak hotspots and trends.

Different from the app co-developed by Apple and Google

Gould said NHSx is working with Apple and Google on their “welcome support for tracing apps around the world”. Indeed, last week, AIMed reported the two tech giants will jointly developed a Bluetooth-driven contact tracing software to be debut in May 2020.

However, speaking at the Science and Technology Committee meeting on 28 April, Gould highlighted NHSx will not wait for Apple and Google to release their app because it will slow down NHS development of their own contact tracing app. Besides, Apple and Google are believed to adopt different approaches towards data collection.

NHSx will be taking a centralized approach. This means a computer server within the NHS is responsible of sending out alerts to users who have established contacts with coronavirus carriers and identifiers are likely to be contained within the system.

Conversely, for decentralized approach, alerts will only be sent between devices. Nevertheless, both approaches allow devices to record and store information anonymously. Gould asserted the centralized approach will not compromise users’ privacy. In fact, it will help to detect inappropriate use of the app in the long run. The app is believed to be made available this month.

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Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.