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Northern Ireland to lead the way with contact-tracing app

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Health Minister Robin Swann during the daily media broadcast in the Long Gallery at Parliament Buildings, Stormont

Health Minister Robin Swann during the daily media broadcast in the Long Gallery at Parliament Buildings, Stormont

Health Minister Robin Swann during the daily media broadcast in the Long Gallery at Parliament Buildings, Stormont

A coronavirus contact-tracing app could be released in Northern Ireland within a matter of weeks, it has emerged.

Health Minister Robin Swann has commissioned work on the app, officials said.

If successful, it will be seen as a major embarrassment to the UK government, following the failure of the NHS app in England, which was trialled on the Isle of Wight.

At Prime Minister's Questions this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "No country in the world has a working contact-tracing app" - a claim challenged by Sir Keir Starmer, who cited Germany.

The Northern Ireland app will be based on the Google/Apple model, the BBC reported last night.

It is designed to be compatible with an app due to be released soon in the Republic of Ireland. That app is also based on the toolkit provided by Apple and Google.

A Department of Health spokesperson told the BBC: "The Health Minister has commissioned work to develop a proximity app, based on the de-centralised Google/ Apple model, for use in Northern Ireland.

"This work includes examining the interoperability of apps and the sharing of information across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic."

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has warned people against "taking liberties" with social distancing rules as he said it could lead to the danger of a "serious spike" in coronavirus infections.

The comments come after Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the Government will take action if distancing measures are ignored as thousands flocked to the south coast on the hottest day of the year.

Speaking during a visit to a restaurant in east London ahead of an easing of lockdown on July 4, the Prime Minister said: "If you look at what's happening elsewhere in the world where people have been coming out of lockdown, I'm afraid what you're also seeing is people taking too many liberties with the guidance, mingling too much, not observing social distancing.

"So in some parts of the world - I won't name them - you have got spikes, really serious spikes, in the instance of the disease, so it is crucial that people understand that on July 4 we get this right, we do this in a balanced way."

Despite Mr Hancock's warning of possible beach closures, Downing Street signalled such a move would be a matter for local authorities.

Pressed on whether the Government would close beaches, a Number 10 spokesman told a Westminster briefing: "It is for local authorities to manage numbers.

"I believe Matt Hancock, when he spoke, was referring to the powers to impose localised lockdowns which we have been clear throughout may need to be the case if we see case numbers rise in a particular area."

Mr Hancock told TalkRadio on Thursday the Government had the power to close public areas such as beaches if people flout safety restrictions.

It comes as Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council declared a major incident after services were "completely overstretched" as huge numbers of visitors crowded onto the beaches during the day.

Chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty later urged people to follow social distancing rules in the hot weather or risk causing a spike in coronavirus.

He wrote on Twitter: "If we do not follow social distancing guidance then cases will rise again.

"Naturally people will want to enjoy the sun but we need to do so in a way that is safe for all."

Mr Hancock said he was "reluctant" to go down the route of shutting public spaces as "people have had a pretty tough lockdown".

But he added that if there was a spike in the number of coronavirus cases "then we will take action".

Belfast Telegraph