Normality was – frustratingly – within reach.
For months the number of infections declined and the pandemic seemed to be over.
But just weeks after millions of children returned to class and offices across the country started to fill up again, we are now slipping back.
Corona cases are said to double every week, hospital admissions are creeping up, and on Friday, mothballed nightingale hospitals – designed to resume the tsunami of cases that never quite took off in April – were put on standby.
And with experts warning last week that it was ‘impossible’ to say when a vaccine would be ready, it seems increasingly likely that we’ll be ready for a Christmas like no other – for all the wrong reasons.
Except, according to a small army of British tech companies, there is another way.
UK tech companies say the solution to the growing Covid-19 cases lies in an easy-to-use smartphone app that will prove our ‘Covid status’ – whether we have the virus or not. Shown: file image
They say the solution lies in an easy-to-use smartphone app that will prove our ‘Covid status’ – whether we have the virus or not.
This, it is said, would help unlock society as we used to know it, allowing safe entry into pubs, restaurants, sports stadiums and even flights. If, of course, your result is negative.
As the CEO of a British company said, “We need proof of identity to enter buildings, so why not for health data?”
The gist is this: if such a system is rolled out, institutions can opt-in and require individuals to undergo a test before visiting – either through the government testing program or a private app company program.
Some companies claim they could offer 20 million test results per month, with results given in just 15 minutes per test – so there’s no need to put undue pressure on the NHS Test and Trace system.
Once the results are in, they are entered into a national database. This is then synced with the smartphone app, resulting in a color-coded scorecard displayed on a person’s phone. Green indicates a negative result, while red is positive.
Amber means that you are ‘late’ for a test. In theory, the system would lead to guaranteed Covid-free environments.
This, it is said, would help unlock society as we used to know it, allowing safe entry into pubs, restaurants, sports stadiums and even flights. If, of course, your result is negative. Shown: file image
Holidays abroad, weddings with hundreds of guests and sold-out concerts would no longer be off the table. These so-called ‘health passports’ are already big business, with a number of tech companies already fighting for control of the market.
There are even indications that the UK government may be interested.
In April, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said ministers were “looking at” a similar concept, which he called “immunity passports,” as a means of “returning to normal life.”
More recently, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also said identifying those who are negative could be key to helping millions of people return to normal life.
And last week, another prototype of the ‘VHealth Passport’ was thrown at No. 10 as a way for sports stadiums to open safely.
According to Manchester-based company VST Enterprises, the ‘VHealth Passport’ will enable the eventual opening of sports stadiums – at full capacity.
Another app, developed by British software developers Onfido, uses facial recognition scans to fine-tune the test results to an individual so that no one cheats the system.
Meanwhile, a health passport created by Ireland-based company ROQU, which also offers 15-minute tests, is being used to hold Ireland’s first post-Covid music festival next month, given the Irish government’s green light and to be attended . by thousands. But what do the experts say?
Simply put, they are very skeptical. First, a negative test result cannot guarantee a person is Covid-free, said Jon Deeks, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham.
He says, “Even if a test claims to be 99 percent accurate, there are a million variables that can cause someone to test negative who is in fact infected. For example, if the test is not performed correctly.
And people can test negative on Thursday and then be positive on Friday, because the virus can be in your system for several days before it is detected. Our research shows that this happens at least one in ten times when people are tested. ‘
Jackie Casell, professor of public health at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, agrees: “The issue of false negatives will not change. Unless people are vaccinated, it poses a huge risk and can lead to people ignoring the government’s official testing and tracking system, leading to even more infections. ‘
There is also a matter of false or weak positive results. Some research suggests that Covid tests can pick up residues of the virus for up to 80 days after exposure – long after a person is no longer infectious.
Many experts have also expressed privacy concerns – we would entrust these private companies with our personal health data. Silkie Carlo, director of the privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, said, “It’s deeply sinister.” She warns against a ‘health apartheid’, whereby companies assume that every user is sick until they have access to a test and can prove otherwise.
The concept also relies on people who own a smartphone – with the exception of one in five Britons over the age of 55, according to the poll website Statista.
Then there’s the number of younger people who don’t have access to it, many of whom just can’t afford them.
Carlo says health passports would limit the movement of these vulnerable groups, which is fundamentally unethical.
She added, “When we all have the app, will companies want to continue issuing ‘passports’ for more serious illnesses? Imagine having to undergo an HIV test to go to a football game? ‘
VST Enterprises boss Louis-James Davis admits, “For example, in the future it could be used to show whether someone has had their MMR vaccine or not.”
As for safety, Husayn Kassai, head of Onfido, says the app will run in the same way as the Babylon health app, used by thousands of NHS patients to access video call appointments with GPs.
Prof Casell is still not convinced. “Above all, it’s unlikely,” she says. Health passports can play a role in high stakes settings such as nursing homes or hospitals, but even there they are not perfect due to the false negative rate.
Its widespread use could undermine the simple rules we all have to follow. If I’ve been in contact with a case of Covid, I have to isolate myself – even if I had a negative test for my health passport this morning. Something like that creates a mixed message. ‘
Experts also stress that testing works best when centralized, not least to give authorities an accurate picture of how the virus is spreading.
As Prof. Deeks says, “We need to think about what’s best for the whole country right now – not just individuals who want to go on vacation or to the pub.”