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UK launches contact tracing app

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The UK government has launched its first test of a coronavirus contact tracing app today on a small island off the south coast of England. 

Using bluetooth technology, the app will alert users if they have been near someone who has tested positive for the virus. Developed by the National Health Service (NHS), the app will also upload information to a central database to help public health experts study the behavior of the virus. 

Unlike Germany, the UK has chosen not to use technology jointly developed by Google and Apple that would only store data locally on individual devices. Instead, the anonymous user data will be encrypted and stored by the health authority in keeping with UK privacy rules. 

The government hopes more than half of the 80,000 households on the Isle of Wight will download the app after its launch Monday. If the test is successful, the app will be rolled out across the country later this month.

Such apps can be highly effective in stopping mass infections, according to Christophe Fraser, an infectious diseases expert at Oxford University who is helping to develop the UK app and has extensively investigated outbreaks of SARS, H1N1 and Ebola.

If people are alerted that they may have been exposed to the virus, they can take steps to prevent further transmission.

However, to be really be effective at stemming the virus, at least 60% of the population would need to download and use the app. 

In addition to the app, the UK government wants to hire 18,000 contact tracers in the next few weeks as part of its overall efforts to keep track of the virus once lockdown measures have been eased. Contact tracers will track where an infected person has been and who they may have come into contact with.

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