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Does tech hold key to lockdown exit?

COVID-19

You can't solve all problems with technology. But could tech hold the answer to the coronavirus lockdown and provide us with something of an ‘exit strategy'?

At the very least, tech has a real role to play in this; something that was acknowledged by the European Commission last week.

It has recommended steps and measures to develop a common EU approach for the use of mobile applications and mobile data in response to the coronavirus pandemic. They note that digital technologies, mobile applications and mobility data have enormous potential to help understand how the virus spreads and to respond effectively. They say that digital tools can play a very important role in the gradual lifting of containment measures, when the time is right, if they are well coordinated.

Indeed, tech like this has been crucial to the approach taken in countries in the far east. Self-reporting of symptoms has played a central role in tracking and tackling coronavirus in countries including China, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan - each of these countries had self-reporting apps to facilitate this.

One of the challenges is that up to 60 per cent of cases of COVID-19 have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic. Scientists therefore suspect that there is an undetected pool of covert cases continuing to infect other members of the public. Most of these people would not be ill enough to seek medical help, would likely slip past screening methods such as temperature checks, and may think they don't have COVID-19 if they don't have a known link to a confirmed case. Access to information on the virus's geographical spread, however, would help these people better understand their likelihood of infection.

Apps have helped provide a heat map of likely cases of COVID-19, providing an overview of where the virus is spreading and enabling the identification of pockets of infection. Due to the data gathered, it also enables the authorities to compare symptoms by age bracket, therefore helping identify if there are patterns of specific symptoms to specific groups.

In addition to tracking and tackling the virus as it spreads, these apps can help from a future perspective, in providing information on where best to carry out antibody tests. This helps in the process of confirming where immunity exists. This is critical to getting the economy back functioning again – something that is critical to human as well as financial health.

The reality is that the economy is one of the pillars of a healthy society. The economy is therefore a public health concern in the way that the virus is. Without a functioning economy, issues such as physical and mental wellbeing will deteriorate. So, we have to find a way for the economy to get functioning again when the time is right. Otherwise we'll be creating another public health emergency whilst solving the current virus-related one.

Given all of this, it is timely and encouraging that Northern Ireland's Department for Health continues to develop its COVID-19 NI Smartphone App. It has the potential to fulfil some of the needs in relation to not just information provision but also data gathering in the fight against coronavirus. An update of the app was released at the end of last week and I would encourage members of the public to download it.

But it's not just apps where tech can come to the fore. We have also seen 3D printing being used to create ventilator masks, among other things, and technology being used to develop COVID-19 tests and to support the efforts to find a vaccine. And technology has obviously been at the forefront of enabling people to work from home, therefore ensuring some elements of the economy can continue to function during the lockdown.

And whilst we have seen huge developments in technology in a short space of time - and indeed digital transformation has been fast-tracked in a major way – the speed of technological change resulting from this crisis is unlikely to slow as people try to find solutions and new ways of working, creating, and living. There aren't many positive in this crisis, but positive technological change is perhaps one.

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