A Northern Ireland virologist has said the level of the coronavirus infection in the community may be too high for effective contact tracing.
r Connor Bamford from Queen's University said contact tracing is needed to progress out of lockdown but the highly skilled practice was more practical when fewer people were suffering from Covid-19.
Health Minister Robin Swann has said Northern Ireland’s Covid-19 tracing programme is designed for long-term use and he favours the adoption of a single contact tracing app to cover cross-border movement around the UK and Ireland.
But Dr Bamford told the Belfast Telegraph's Coronavirus podcast that although he thinks it's the right time to plan the exit out of lockdown, Northern Ireland could see an uptick in the number of cases and the R value as restrictions lift.
"After a couple of months [of lockdown] we have mostly controlled the virus," he said.
"I'm a bit worried about lifting [lockdown] too soon because even though it did work, there is still a significant amount of virus still out there in the community in Northern Ireland, in Ireland and across the UK and it's just looking for an opportunity to come back.
"We're going to need some form of contact tracing because the lockdown did work, but it didn't work as well as we had hoped because there is still virus out there and the all-important R number is floating around 0.8 and it's only going to get higher when we relieve aspects of lockdown," he said.
Actively going after the virus with testing, contact tracing and then asking people to isolate has been highlighted as a really good strategy for eliminating the virus in the community, said Dr Bamford.
But contact tracing is challenging in itself, he said.
"You need a lot of really highly trained people to do it right and at the minute there might be even too many cases out there to be really effective. These digital apps could be effective if we got around these privacy concerns," he said.
"At the moment in Northern Ireland [contact tracing] is done manually over the phone so that really requires you to know who your contacts are and contact details for them. So you can imagine with public transport or even as non-essential shopping becomes a bit more frequent, that's going to be even more difficult to do. This is why we really hope that this app will help us out."
Dr Bamford said the key was to slowly and moderately exit lockdown and adjust timelines for opening hotels and shops according to the rate of infection in the community, as well as increasing contact tracing.
"We might have to bring back some aspects of lockdown so I do think there will be an aspect of trial and error," he added.
"The Covid-19 issue is not going away anytime soon and I think in the next couple of years we'll be hearing about it until we get this vaccine.
"We're in a critical moment in what will be the history of our response to Covid-19. We really don't want to waste all that effort."
Scientists and doctors are working on a combination of drugs that will eventually treat the virus directly to address the risk coronavirus might become immune to whatever treatment is found.
"One day your drug worked really well and the next day it doesn't work so well," Dr Bamford said, highlighting how drugs for the flu were no longer effective.
"We do recognise that it's difficult getting one antiviral treatment so getting two or even three might be a challenge."
The Belfast Telegraph Coronavirus podcast is available on Spotify and Soundcloud.