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Public torn over COVID-19 contact tracing apps, study shows

A study by researchers at Swansea University and Manchester University suggest that people are torn over whether they will use the COVID-19 contact tracing smartphone app, which is planned for release in the UK later this month.

The study finds:

  • People were split over whether they will be using the app, with roughly one third of participants stating they would not use the app.
  • Many people are concerned that the app will not protect users’ privacy or that it will not be used by enough people to make it effective.
  • Many people felt that they either lacked enough information about the app or were misinformed about how the app works. Some people are actively avoiding COVID-19 news coverage which may contribute to this lack of information.

The research is a preliminary report which has been published on medRxiv, a site used by researchers to share new findings on timely issues before they have been peer-reviewed for publication in a journal (more information in notes below).

The research is being led by Dr Simon Williams, Senior Lecturer in People and Organisation at Swansea University, with collaborations from Dr Kimberly Dienes and Professor Christopher Armitage of Manchester University’s Centre for Health Psychology, and Dr Tova Tampe, an independent consultant at the World Health Organization (WHO).

The researchers conducted online focus groups with UK adults representing a range of gender, ethnic, age and occupational backgrounds in order to explore their attitudes on the proposed NHSX contact tracing app currently being trialled.

Dr Simon Williams said: “The contact tracing app is a crucial part of the government’s strategy as we continue the transition out of lockdown. Public support for, and use of, the app will ultimately determine whether the strategy succeeds or fails.

“Our study suggests that the government is far from guaranteed the level of support they need to have the kind of uptake that will make a big difference. A lot of work needs to be done to build public confidence and trust in their handling of COVID-19, and to improve communication around the app.

“One of the major concerns was over-protecting their privacy. People associated the app with the rise of the ‘Big Brother’ surveillance state. Some felt that any privacy issues were a necessary evil that were outweighed by the ‘greater good’ of reducing the spread of the virus. Others felt that the app would infringe on their their civil liberties and worried about data sharing and theft.

“Another concern was that not enough people would use it, either because a proportion of people can't afford smartphones or because they don’t trust that it will be effective. The irony of course is that if enough people decide not to use it because they think others won't, it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.”

Dr Dienes, Lecturer in Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Manchester and co-author of the study added: “It seems one of the main reasons as to why some are worried about privacy is because they either do not have enough information about it or have the wrong information about it.

“For example, one of the big misconceptions is that the app allows its users to specifically identify, and even map, those with COVID-19 symptoms amongst their contacts and in their vicinity, which is not the case. Some people are starting to actively avoid news on COVID-19, sometimes because they find it too overwhelming. So, it is important that government gets the information out there in as many ways as possible, much as they did with lockdown guidance." 

The study offers several recommendations to government and policymakers. Dr Williams added: “We recommend that government should communicate as clearly as possible and using a variety of media. They should switch to a de-centralised approach, focus on reassuring the public over privacy, and promote the key message that using the app is part of a collective responsibility to stop the spread of the virus and can help save lives.”

****This study is a pre-print and is a preliminary report of work that has not yet been certified by peer review. A pre-print should not be relied on to guide clinical practice or health-related behavior and should not be reported in the media as established information.**

The study appears in MedRxiv, which is a collaboration between Yale University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), a not-for-profit research and educational institution, and BMJ, a global healthcare knowledge provider. More about MedRxiv.

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