The UK has launched its smartphone app to assist with contact tracing. The government is full of enthusiasm and the Isle of Wight is the guinea pig. But for all the fanfare and faith in its potential, is the right kind of tracing being done? And are we missing the human touch?
The idea behind the app is for those who download it to self-report symptoms of COVID-19 and receive alerts when the phones of users who may be infected come within transmission range.
If enough people use it, claim supporters at the University of Oxford, it can get the epidemic under control. They also assert that it offers a way of gathering and transferring data that is cheaper and faster than traditional, manual methods of contact tracing. Those older methods typically involve health officials carrying out in-depth questioning in person or over the phone, with subsequent follow-ups, to establish, monitor and control paths of human-to-human transmission. The process is certainly resource-heavy. It can also be very slow. But arguing for the superiority of automated tracing for reasons of cost and speed risks ignoring the significant benefits of tracing carried out by people.
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