NHS contact-tracing app greatly curtailed virus spread, paper says

17 May 2021

Image: © Anthony Brown/Stock.adobe.com

The peer-reviewed paper, which will be published in Nature, said that hundreds of thousands of cases may have been prevented by the app.

The coronavirus contact-tracing app developed by the NHS helped in reducing a significant number of virus cases, according to a new research paper.

Researchers claimed that the app, which was rolled out in England and Wales last September, aided in preventing hundreds of thousands of cases of Covid-19.

“On average, each confirmed case who consented to notification of their contacts through the app prevented one new case,” the researchers wrote.

The peer-reviewed paper will be published in the journal Nature. Some of the researchers behind the paper were involved in the development of the app, but its acceptance by Nature lends weight to the paper’s findings.

The research covered the period from 24 September 2020, the date the app was launched after many delays, until the end of the year. The app was designed to detect when a person was in close contact with another person that later tested positive for the virus.

The researchers found that about 16.5m users, or 28pc of people in England and Wales, regularly used the app in that period, with 560,000 users reporting a positive test and 1.7m exposure notifications being sent.

They also found that the app was more commonly used in rural areas.

“These findings provide evidence for continued development and deployment of such apps in populations that are awaiting full protection from vaccines,” the paper said. It added that apps are not a substitute for manual contact tracing and both should be used in tandem.

Findings from the research will be welcomed by advocates of contact-tracing apps as in other countries many of the apps have dwindled out of regular usage.

In Ireland, the HSE’s contact-tracing app was launched to much enthusiasm, very quickly amassing 1m downloads. But recent research from Trinity College Dublin found just 25pc of positive Covid-19 cases were reported by users of the Irish app.

In Belgium, a doctor testifying before parliament recently said the country’s app made “no contribution” to efforts to reduce the virus’s spread because it was voluntary rather than compulsory.

Jonathan Keane is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Dublin