How many Covid alerts have been issued by the NHS track-and-trace app being tested on the Isle of Wight? Only ONE person has been found… and it’s the local MP’s girlfriend
- The app works by allocating a unique code to each user’s smart phone
- Whenever you come within about two metres of someone else with the app, these codes are exchanged via Bluetooth and stored in the phone’s data
- Cynics have suggested the trial was doomed from the outset due to technology
- Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19
Early on Friday morning an orderly queue formed outside the newly-opened Paradice Ice Cream Parlour on the High Street in Cowes.
Nearby a cafe was doing steady trade selling coffee, tea and pastries, while along the harbour, a group of fishermen sat in the sunshine, six feet apart, hoping to land a bass or two.
This was the Isle of Wight – home of the NHS’s Covid-19 track and trace experiment – dipping its toe into the ‘new normal’.
More than a fortnight ago, the island began testing an app which aims to halt the spread of the disease by identifying the infected and alerting those with whom they’ve come into close contact.
Emma Appel 37, on The Parade in Cowes, a resident of the Isle of Wight who uses the app
But having spoken to dozens of islanders the only person The Mail on Sunday found who had heard of anyone receiving an alert was the Isle of Wight’s MP Bob Seely.
His girlfriend, he says, was notified – told she’d been in contact with someone showing symptoms of coronavirus.
She was urged to follow health advice. Cynics suggested the trial was doomed from the outset because the islanders would struggle with the technology.
Yet acting for the greater good and proving they know their way around a smartphone, some 55,000 have downloaded the app, a figure greatly exceeding expectations.
Although the population is 140,000, there are 80,000 smartphone owners available to use the app. In the days after the app was launched, islanders talked of little else.
‘We’d come out after shopping and straight away check our phones to see if we’d received an alert,’ says Maxine Simpson, 60.
‘The supermarket, we reckoned, was the most dangerous place. I don’t know anyone who has got one. I still check after leaving the supermarket.’
She was with her mother, Elizabeth Brittan, 86, who has the app, and her 37-year-old daughter Emma Appell – three generations of the same family meeting for the first time since lockdown began.
‘We feel as though we’ve done our bit,’ said Mrs Brittan.
The Isle of Wight has been chosen as a test community for take up of location data tracing app for NHS
‘It would be great if the app can do some good,’ adds Emma. Across the island posters declare: ‘Isle of Wight – Lead the Way.’
It recalls the ‘Your Country Needs You’ exhortation from World War I. Inevitably, there have been those questioning the experiment.
Parish councillor Darryl Pitcher says: ‘This big experiment was forced upon us – we deserve to know its results. ‘We are at the front and the generals are at the back. It doesn’t mean we are leading.’
Running a Covid response team, delivering groceries and prescriptions, he says he’s more ‘plugged in than most’ to island news and has yet to hear of an alert being issued.
‘There are only 170 or so confirmed cases of coronavirus on the island,’ he says.
‘A fair number of those are in care homes so they won’t be going anywhere. Also a lot of people will have recovered, so I would suggest there simply aren’t enough cases here to trace.’
He says that although the app was launched in a ‘blaze of publicity’, there has been ‘a distinct lack of data’.
The app works by allocating a unique code to each user’s phone. Whenever you come within about two metres of someone else with the app, these codes are exchanged via Bluetooth and stored in the phone.
If one party becomes unwell and logs the fact in their phone, all those they have come into contact with will receive an alert.
This might mean them having to self-isolate and undergo tests. But it depends on the length of time spent near the symptomatic person, and their proximity.
Like everywhere, the island has conspiracy theorists and those who worry about an infringement of civil liberties.
But as others point out, most people freely give away far more data on Facebook. Then there are those with more practical concerns.
Tim Gibbs, for instance, who runs a pharmacy in Yarmouth and deals with the sick on a daily basis.
‘I’ve downloaded the app but I can’t get a signal because my roof is lead lined,’ he says.
In Newport, painter and decorator Sean King grumbled about the app draining the battery on his mobile.
The majority, though, are proud to see the island ahead of the mainland for a change. Chris Stevens, owner of the ice cream parlour, believes the app has given people ‘confidence’.
Local MP Bob Seely, who was instrumental in helping to arrange the trial, speaks passionately of the island’s history of innovation.
‘Marconi experimented with the world’s first wireless communications here, and the hovercraft was designed and built here,’ he says.
‘You don’t need to be a tech hub to make this work. You need other virtues such as patriotism and community spirit.
‘The aim of the experiment was not because we are super-techie or super-infectious.
”The benefit for the scientists is that the island is separated from the mainland and has a big enough population.’
But is the app working? ‘It’s providing valuable information and two dozen people a day are using it to report symptoms.
‘Whether they would have reported symptoms via other means if they didn’t have the app is not possible to say. Other valuable information is coming back: how people interact with it and what models of phones are unable to download it, for instance.’
But what of the big question?
‘How many alerts? I don’t have that information,’ says the MP.
Clearly the experiment has a long way to go with the 140,000 islanders here before being rolled out for the whole country’s population of 66 million.
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