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Cross-border testing and tracing

Northern Ireland looks set to follow Ireland’s lead in introducing Covid tracing technology following the official launch of Covid Tracker Ireland.

Ireland’s new contact tracing app went live on 6 June after weeks of testing and some delay to the rollout. The app, which has been designed to operate on a cross-border basis, is also likely to be available in Northern Ireland soon with the Executive partnering with the app’s designers in order to procure a rollout for Northern Ireland too.

Concerns had been raised about the reliability and accuracy of the new technology in its early life, with the UK Government expressing worry about false alerts. However, Ireland has now joined the likes of China and Germany in digitally tracking the movement of the people within, in an attempt to identify those diagnosed with Covid-19 and warn those who may have come into contact with them.

Tests had been carried out in the Republic of Ireland ahead of the rollout of the app, with members of An Garda Síochána participating as they had been one of the few workforces still outside and interacting regularly during the pandemic. The results were satisfactory enough for health officials to advise that the rollout move to the next phase and subsequently full roll out.

Because the app has been designed to support UK mobile phone numbers, cross-border rollout of the app has already been accounted for; this provision also makes it possible for any visitors from Britain to utilise the app during their visit. The app is expected to be released in Northern Ireland before the end of July.

An early stumbling block in testing, conducted by a team from Trinity College Dublin, found that the metal of a bus’s fittings and structure could cause problems for apps based on the Google-Apple application programme interface (API). This API allows the triggering of a contact match for the app to be adjusted based on the strength of the Bluetooth signal and duration of exposure. Using the settings in use by Switzerland’s app, the experiment logged no contacts despite 60 handsets being placed within two metres of each other. Despite this, interim HSE Chief Information Officer Fran Thompson has said that field tests had shown a 72 per cent overall success rate.

The Executive has partnered with the Waterford firm in charge of developing the app, Nearform, in a move that would see them become a trendsetter in the UK as far as tracing apps are concerned. A Department of Health statement to the BBC confirmed that work had been commissioned to develop a proximity app that “includes examining the interoperability of apps and the sharing of information across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic”.

The Executive had previously rejected plans for the NHS’s app over fears that it would not be compatible with the Republic of Ireland. At the time, Minister for Health Robin Swann said: “We have to ensure that we progress the work done for a Northern Ireland version so that it can interact with the Republic of Ireland app.” The HSE’s app had originally been scheduled for release in early April, but delays regarding privacy and efficacy had slowed its development.

Northern Ireland rolling out an app before the rest of the UK would be in keeping with the Covid-19 experience thus far, given that the Executive was the first of the devolved institutions to roll out its own contract tracing mechanism. Following the criticism that surrounded the UK Government decision to halt tracing in March, the Executive unveiled its “enhanced contact tracing pilot” on a five-day-a-week basis in April before expanding the programme in May. By early June, 480 Covid-positive people had been contacted, with 721 contacts successfully traced.

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