Dr Geraint Lewis, the leader of the team behind the coronavirus contact tracing app being trialled on the Isle of Wight, says the pioneering operation is already proving a success.
Tens of thousands of Islanders have downloaded the app since it was launched to the public on Thursday, prompting Dr Lewis to say: “I can’t quite believe it. It has been amazing. There has been an overwhelming response as best as we can tell.”
Dr Lewis is on the Island closely monitoring the progress of the app, and public reaction to it, before it is rolled out across the rest of the UK. The idea of the app was only first thought about by Dr Lewis and his team in mid-March, and has prompted suggestions it has been rolled out too quickly.
But Dr Lewis said: “As far as we can tell the app is working as we would expect, but I would be pleased to hear about any teething problems. I am ever the optimist, but we are here to learn about any technical glitches that people encounter on the Island, so it is really important they give feedback through the app’s website.
“We are here to learn about how the app performs in real life. There are all sorts of scenarios, and it is impossible to come up with a complete list of those when you are sitting in an office block in London. So coming out into the real world is the only way to learn how the app actually works.”
Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely pointed out: “The whole point of having the app on the Island is that it will soon be rolled out nationally. So to find any glitches is not evidence of a flaw, but evidence of a successful action. I do find it frustrating to see the national media saying ‘there are glitches, so that means you have failed there and there’. Finding glitches is successful; that is my definition of what the Island is doing in supporting this.”
Many people found it initially difficult to find the app to download, because it was not available on their iPhones through the Apple App store or Google. But Dr Lewis explained: “That was a intentional step because we didn’t want the app to suddenly be downloaded by about 50 million people across the country. So we introduced that intermediary step for the Island phase, which we will be removing later on. But it was to stop vast swathes of people coming in, when we wanted it to be only for the Island initially. By the time we roll it out nationally, you will be able to search for the app like you would for any other app.
“Rolling it out in stages across the UK is certainly an option. There are some disadvantages in doing it that way, one being it could lead to confusion about areas, whereas the Island is one contained area.”
Asked why the app will only send out an alert after someone with symptoms has been close to other people for 15 minutes or more, Dr Lewis said: “The scientists’ studies show that is the best estimate at the moment. You have to be within two metres of someone for more than 15 minutes, so the app at the moment replicates that same assumption. One of the advantages of the app is that you can model the biology of a virus much more closely with a simple rule like two metres for 15 minutes. It will be amended and become more sophisticated over time, but that would have to be signed off by the Chief Medical Officer before we do anything.”
Pictured: Dr Geraint Lewis and Bob Seely