What the flood of Covid alerts in the UK means for exposure applications

“More than 600,000 people were asked to isolate by the NHS covid-19 app during the week of July 8 in England and Wales,” she says, “but that’s just a bit more than double the number of new positive cases in the same endpoint. While we had concerns about the rationale for the contact tracing app, criticizing it for ‘pingemia’ is misplaced: the app basically works as it always has been. ”

Christophe Fraser, epidemiologist at the Big Data Institute at the University of Oxford who did the most important studies on the effectiveness of the application, says that while it is functioning as intended, there is another problem: a significant break in the social contract. “People can see on TV that there are raves and nightclubs going on. Why am I told to stay home? Which is fair, to be honest, ”he says.

It’s this lack of clear and fair rules, he says, that leads to widespread frustration as people are asked to isolate themselves. As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, public health technology is deeply interwoven with everything around it – how it’s marketed, how it’s talked about in the media, how it is discussed by your doctor, how it is supported (or not) by lawmakers.

“People want to do the right thing,” says Fraser. “They must be met halfway.”

How we got here

Exposure notification apps are a digital public health tactic pioneered during the pandemic – and they’ve already stood up to much criticism from those who say they haven’t had sufficient use. Dozens of countries apps designed to alert users to covid exposure, by sharing code and using a jointly developed framework Google and Apple. But amid criticism of privacy concerns and technical issues, critics blamed the apps launching too late in the pandemic, at a time when the number of cases was too high for technology to turn the tide.

So, shouldn’t that moment in the UK – when the technical issues have been resolved, when adoption is high and with a new wave of spikes – shouldn’t that be the right time for its application to make a real difference?

“Science isn’t that much of a challenge… the challenge comes from behavior. The hardest parts of the system are the parts where you have to get people to do something.”

Jenny Wanger, Linux Foundation Public Health

Not if people don’t voluntarily follow directions for self-isolation, says Jenny Wanger, who leads covid technology initiatives for the Linux Foundation Public Health.

Eighteen months after the start of the pandemic, “the technology is generally not a challenge,” she said. “The science is not as much of a challenge… we know, at this point, how the transmission of covid works. The challenge comes around the behavior. The hardest parts of the system are the parts where you have to convince people to do it. something, of course, based on best practice. ”

Fraser of Oxford says he’s thinking about it in terms of incentives. For the average person, he says, the incentives to adhere to contact tracing rules – digital or otherwise – don’t always add up.

If the result of using the app is that “you end up being quarantined but your neighbor who didn’t install the app isn’t quarantined,” he says, “it doesn’t doesn’t necessarily seem fair, does it? “

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