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Covid-19 contact tracing app due to be launched by end of May

The app will be released on an opt-in basis and use bluetooth technology.

Paul Reid, CEO of the HSE, speaking at today's briefing.
Paul Reid, CEO of the HSE, speaking at today's briefing.
Image: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

THE HSE IS aiming to release its contact tracing app to help identify close contacts of a confirmed case of Covid-19 by the end of this month, CEO Paul Reid said today.

The app will only be available on smartphones and will use bluetooth technology to “augment the contact tracing process”, Reid said. 

“It’s not a replacement for the very significant resources we are committing to contact tracing,” he said. 

“The target time for it to come out is the end of May for the launch of it, but it may be a soft launch first to do some prototype testing on it.” 

Ireland’s app will follow the German model in which all information is stored on the device itself rather than a government database.

Any information on contact with a confirmed case is pushed through the app in what Reid described as a “less intrusive system” than the one used by some other countries. 

The HSE’s director of communications Paul Connors previously said on 29 March that the app could be introduced “in the next 10 days or so” on an opt-in basis. 

Countries in Asia were the first to roll out tracing apps, with China launching several that use either direct geolocalisation through phone networks, or data compiled from train and airline travel or road checkpoints.

Their use was systematic and compulsory, and played a key role in allowing Beijing to lift the lockdown and halt contagions.

South Korea issued mass phone alerts announcing locations visited by infected patients, and ordered a tracking app installed on the phone of anyone ordered into isolation – aggressive measures credited with helping curtail the outbreak.

The app being developed in Ireland will fall more in line with other European countries where they are strongly encouraged, but remain voluntary. The apps let relevant authorities see when people’s devices have come into close contact. 

Officials in Europe have called for collaborate efforts to ensure users know when and how their personal data is being used. 

So far, however, most European countries have forged ahead alone on app development.

Paul Reid said Ireland would not simply be copying the app being developed in Germany, instead basing it on “knowledge from the Irish system and Irish social behaviours”.  

He said the app is being developed under a whole-government approach.  

“It is designed to support, giving us better population based information on the disease. It is a Bluetooth functionality and provides that data through Bluetooth,” Reid said.

“We’re currently continuing to work with Google and Apple, to ensure that both applications can provide the support and data that we need.”

Last month, Google and Apple announced a joint initiative that would allow apps to be created allowing both operating system to exchange information with a joint “opt in system” using Bluetooth. 

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Data concerns

The Irish app’s project team is developing a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) which will be sent to the Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon. 

“We want to set out in depth in the DPIA how we will mitigate any risks or concerns that may be in relation to data issues,” Paul Reid said. 

Certain places like the UK and Australia are storing the data on their own health systems rather than on the phone itself. 

All information on the Irish app including notifications to people whose device was in close contact with a confirmed case will be pushed out from the app. 

“We want them to contribute a phone number because it makes the contact tracing quicker, but it’s an option to submit a number as well,” Paul Reid from the HSE said. 

It identifies people who will have been within two meters, for a period of 15 minutes close to a contact.

“All European regulators have wanted to see less data centrally held in the government systems, and the use of the application itself to push some form of data.”

In the United States, there is no federal tracing plan under consideration, but some states have announced their own, either for bluetooth apps or, in the case of Hawaii, sending out daily questionnaires via text and email to help build a database to track infections. 

With reporting by AFP. 

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