The COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the SARS-COV-2 virus, has presented significant public health, financial and societal challenges for the UK and internationally. Mobile geographic information systems’ (GIS’) software applications (apps) on smartphones can assist in controlling disease outbreaks by providing real time, or near real time, information on whether the app user has shared the same location as another person who is suspected (or confirmed) to have the condition in question. Contact tracing technology has the potential to mitigate the effects of pandemics on both individuals and societies by reducing the number of cases and permitting individuals to continue their daily activities in a socially responsible manner. According to the World Health Organisation, while electronic tools and information technology are not essential components of contact tracing, they can improve its efficiency and facilitate its implementation on a wide scale.
A number of COVID-19 contact tracing smartphone apps have been developed for potential use in the UK as part of the testing and tracing system, which in turn is part of the support programme to deliver a “phased plan” for exiting the lockdown. The app started feasibility tests on the Isle of Wight in May 2020, with plans for subsequent release nationally.
Due to its voluntary nature, the uptake of the official COVID-19 app by the public is key to its ability to make an impact in containing the COVID-19 outbreak. Cross-sectional surveys in the early stages of the pandemic identified a degree of willingness among adults in the UK to download the app, but also reported concerns about using this technology.
This research comprises an baseline online survey among a representative sample of adults aged 18-79 in the UK at or soon after the national launch of the app. The same respondents would then be asked to complete a number of follow-up surveys conducted (approximately) every five weeks. The surveys will include a boost sample among Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups.
The aim of this research is to understand the attitudes shaping the views of adults in the UK on the use of contact tracing apps in the context of a pandemic, the factors influencing widescale uptake of these apps, and how uptake and use change over the course of the pandemic and as lockdown measures are relaxed, and possibly reintroduced.
The research aims to answer the following research questions:
- What proportion of adults in the UK are and are not willing to contribute data to a contact tracing app in the context of the current COVID-19 outbreak? What are their characteristics? How do these characteristics relate to the risk factors, and perceived risk for contracting SARS-CoV-2?
- To what extent do members of the public understand how the chosen technology(ies) for mobile phone contact tracing in the UK operate? For example, whether the app collects personal information that is linked to health records, whether the app tracks the movement of users.
- What concerns do members of the public have regarding the use of these apps? For example, loss of employment and income as a result of a positive diagnosis, privacy concerns, unauthorised use of information by Government authorities or by third parties, likely effectiveness of the app in reducing infection rates, practical concerns about the app draining phones’ batteries.
- What would allay the concerns stated by members of the public and increase their likelihood of using the app? For example, only collecting anonymised data, not linking the data to any other governmental database, the ability to withdraw consent at any point with all data collected up to that point erased, evidence from other countries that its use has resulted in fewer infections or mitigation of impact on economy, use of the app being linked to relaxation of lockdown measures.
- What have been the main sources of information about the app for members of the public? What is/are their preferred/ trusted sources of information?
- How does the use of the app change over the course of the pandemic? What factors lead users to stop using it or start using it at a later date?
Short reports of key results will be provided to DHSC/PHE/NHSX/NHSE about two weeks after the end of each round of data collection.
The project is expected to run until the end of 2020 or early 2021, when a full report of the longitudinal survey results will be prepared.