Cross-border contact tracing now possible across all UK apps

5 Nov 2020277 Views

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Tech developed in Ireland has enabled Covid-19 contact-tracing apps across the UK, Jersey and Gibraltar to become interlinked, helping to control the pandemic across borders.

Covid-19 contact-tracing apps in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Crown Dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, and the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar will now work with each other, as part of efforts to track the spread of Covid-19 across these regions.

The back-end of each contact-tracing app in these territories can securely send diagnosis keys that are generated when a user inputs a positive Covid-19 test result to a shared federated server owned and run by NHS Scotland.

This federated server then relays these keys to the back-end servers of the linked contact-tracing apps. No personal data is shared and the approach has been agreed in line with advice from UK cybersecurity authorities.

Thanks to this development, from today (5 November) people travelling between these regions can continue to enable contact tracing through their app of choice. All they need to do is to keep the app running in the background as usual.

Should a user receive a positive Covid-19 test result, they can anonymously notify any close contacts determined by these apps by inputting a test code.

Irish tech’s role

This expands on an announcement just last week that saw apps in Scotland, Jersey and Northern Ireland linked. Interoperability across contact-tracing apps can help monitor and mitigate the spread of Covid-19 across borders.

The three apps were developed by Waterford-headquartered NearForm, which has enabled this level of integration.

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The source code for Ireland’s contact-tracing app, also developed by NearForm, was selected as an open-source project by the Linux Foundation and the technology now underpins a number of contact-tracing apps around the world.

The interoperability feature was first developed by NearForm for contact-tracing apps in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and has since been rolled out successfully across the US states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Last month, Ireland’s app was also one of the first to join the European interoperability gateway, which is being developed by the European Commission.

‘This allows people to self-isolate quickly if they have been exposed to the virus, reducing the risk of them infecting others’
– JEANE FREEMAN

“For those who must travel, interoperability provides a key additional level of protection for both themselves and others,” said NearForm CEO Cian Ó Maidín.

“The app’s close contact alerts break transmission chains by dramatically reducing the time taken for users to self-isolate and seek further advice, preventing further spread of the virus.”

Scotland’s health secretary Jeane Freeman said more than 1.5m people have downloaded the Protect Scotland app since its launch last month. Among those users, more than 13,000 have been alerted of a Covid-positive close contact via the app.

“This allows people to self-isolate quickly if they have been exposed to the virus, reducing the risk of them infecting others,” Freeman added.

“We also know that not everyone uses a smartphone or will be able to or want to access the app, which is why this software is very much there to complement existing contact-tracing methods.”

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com