Britain Didn’t Want Silicon Valley’s Help on a Tracing App. Now It Does.

LONDON — For months, British authorities have pursued an app that they promised would help ease the country’s coronavirus lockdown, despite growing criticism that it posed privacy risks and would not work well.On Thursday, officials abruptly reversed course, saying Britain will join other countries and design a new contact-tracing app based on software provided by Apple and Google.The announcement was an embarrassing turnaround, adding to a string of promises related to the coronavirus that the British government has failed to deliver on. At one point, the government said the contact-tracing technology would be available to the public in May. Now the aim is to have it ready by winter.British officials had counted on the app, which is intended to alert anyone who may have come near an infected person, such as on a bus or subway, to help lift lockdown orders and prevent a second wave of infections.Leaders stuck to a plan of building an app in-house even as other countries changed course. Germany and Italy, which both agreed to use Apple and Google’s technology more than a month ago, debuted contact-tracing apps this week.British public health officials wanted to avoid using the software provided by Apple and Google because it limits the amount of data that can be centrally collected and analyzed — information they felt was critical in tracking the disease. But the British team struggled to build an app that worked properly without support from the Silicon Valley giants.Apple and Google, whose iOS and Android operating systems run on nearly every smartphone on the planet, prevented outside apps that did not use their code from taking full advantage of a device’s ability to measure proximity. The companies took this approach in the interests of privacy to prevent governments from creating a database with sensitive health and location information, particularly in countries with fewer civil rights.British officials argued that access to more data had added public health benefits, such as the ability to spot clusters of infection. But after testing on the Isle of Wight, an effort to build a workaround was abandoned.“Countries across the globe have faced challenges in developing an app which gets all of these elements right,” Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, said in a statement. “Through ongoing international collaboration we hope to learn, improve and find a solution which will strengthen our global response to this virus.”The reversal, which the government characterized as the “next phase in development,” was the latest in a string of British mishaps responding to the coronavirus.The government, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has faced criticism for struggling to put together an overarching strategy even as the death count approaches 50,000, making it one of the hardest hit countries, along with the United States and Brazil. A highly touted plan to build an army of human contact tracers has been riddled with problems.Without an effective human or digital infrastructure to help identify clusters of infections as they emerge, the British government is facing questions about the country’s readiness to reopen its beleaguered economy.England’s manual contact tracing system has faced many challenges.After working to track down the contacts of confirmed cases in the early days of the pandemic, Britain largely scrapped that plan by March 12, after government scientists said it was no longer practical. Officials have indicated that the government did not have enough testing capacity to keep track of the virus.By the next month, with the death toll soaring and scientists excoriating the government for its response, the government backtracked and promised to reconstitute the system for England.Since then, the government has built a 25,000-person phalanx of contact tracers, many of them employed by private companies. Health professionals are supposed to call people who test positive for the virus and obtain a list of their recent contacts. Then a lower-level tier of workers calls these people to ask them to isolate themselves.But thousands of infected patients are still being missed, and some are not even being transferred into the contact tracing system at all, according to government figures released on Thursday.

Updated June 16, 2020

I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?
Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?
States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

And roughly 90 percent of the contacts of infected patients are being reached not by the newly hired staff members, but rather by existing public health teams charged with handling complex cases in settings like nursing homes and schools.At the same time, development of the contract-tracing app was hobbled by a dispute over privacy and how much data the authorities should be able to collect.Technical specifications from Apple and Google prevent any government from collecting data that could be stored in a centralized database. Instead, the information is stored on an individual’s phone, which occasionally communicates with a server to allow analysis of an anonymous roster of people who have shared their confirmed case of Covid-19. If people have been in touch with an infected person, they will receive an alert urging them to self-quarantine and call a doctor.The contact-tracing apps are meant to speed up the process of identifying people who may have contracted the disease but are not yet showing symptoms, a critical moment when people are most likely to spread it to others. The technology works by using a smartphone’s Bluetooth signal to measure proximity to nearby phones.On Thursday, the government said it would now aim to develop an app more integrated with its tracing system, including allowing people to order a virus test. But in a sign that the app is losing importance among leaders, a government minister said this week that the technology, “isn’t the priority at the moment.”The tracing app is not the first time Britain has been slow to turn away from plans that were widely seen as flawed. In March, the country kept businesses and schools open longer than most other European countries, a period that public health officials now believe cost many lives. It was not until this month that authorities began requiring masks be worn on public transportation.Now that Britain has changed course on its contact-tracing app, France is the biggest European country that is developing an app without the help of Apple and Google. Officials there have said private companies should not be allowed to dictate the public health response of a democratically elected government.

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