From the outset, it has been clear that data can play a major role in dealing with a pandemic like COVID-19. Partly that is because China, where the government has unparalleled ability to access information about the whereabouts and activities of citizens, was first to have to tackle a major outbreak of the virus. It is also partly because the ability to collect and analyse information about the propagation of the virus is vital to being able to bring the pandemic under control.
As European countries now consider that the virus is sufficiently subdued that governments can start to re-open social activities and unlock their economies, the ability to identify possible new outbreaks and deal with them rapidly is fundamental for preventing a “second spike”. Therefore, attention has turned to how apps can help to enable such “test and trace” strategies. No app is ever going to be able to do this on its own, partly because no government would consider it politically proportionate to make the use of apps mandatory across the whole population (though some use of apps in specific circumstances – e.g. isolation – has been made mandatory in some countries), and partly because governments know that even if they tried to make an app mandatory, it never would be, and some of those who would not use it are likely to be among the most vulnerable in society.
However, there is acceptance that apps, if adopted by a large enough proportion of people, can play a positive role in complementing test and trace systems. But here governments face a dilemma – the more they use apps to collect data, the less people may be willing to use the apps. Conversely, the less usable data a government gets from the app, the smaller the contribution it will make to controlling the spread of the virus. It is no surprise that this dilemma has led governments to different conclusions, reflecting national attitudes towards healthcare systems, privacy, technology, etc.
This note on the EU guidance on how the apps should be implemented in the EU and what a number of European countries are doing helps to illustrate both the challenge and the potential. How much difference apps will actually make to managing the re-opening is up for debate. But there seems little doubt that the role of data in managing a pandemic is here to stay.