In the fight against the corona virus, the government is working on an app that keeps track of who you have been around. Whether that app will be useful by warning people who may be carrying the coronavirus is still unclear.

For the time being, when the Netherlands goes a step further from the lockdown, the GGDs will continue to warn people in the usual way: by asking patients with whom they have spent time after a confirmed infection. "We are very busy to set up everything without an app. Because there is no app, "says a spokesperson for umbrella organization GGD GHOR.

The words of Minister Hugo de Jonge (Public Health) on April 7 when the corona app was announced, are in sharp contrast to how his ministry is now looking at the project. At that time it was still "impossible" to increase the test capacity without having the contact investigation "all staffed by the GGD".

His ministry is no longer so rigorous. It is now investigating whether a corona app can warn people at risk if the GGD cannot reach them through the normal investigation.

"We're going to see what it yields," said Ron Roozendaal, chief corona app at the ministry, in conversation with several journalists on Friday. "It's the first time we've tried it. We're going to see where we end up."

Minister Hugo de Jonge announced on April 7 that the ministry is thinking of a corona app: "Is there a possibility to replace that GGD work (to warn people who have been in contact with someone who is infected, ed.) with an app? " (Photo: Pro Shots)

GGD investigates the well-known, corona app perhaps the unknown

The next phase in the corona crisis will commence on 1 June. Measures are relaxed and anyone with complaints that can indicate the corona virus can be tested. Anyone who tests positive must stay at home. Housemates of the corona patient are also asked to quarantine.

In order to keep a grip on the spread of the coronavirus, the GGD is investigating where someone has contracted the virus and who else may be infected. For example, housemates, members of the same sports team or colleagues can be warned. According to the RIVM, this source and contact research is "essential" in the fight against the virus.

This method depends on what an infected person tells the GGD about his contacts. But in addition to people remembering the patient, he also does groceries in the supermarket, makes a detour or takes the bus. Because the patient does not know who he encountered at the time, the GGD cannot warn these people.

The idea behind the corona app is that smartphones exchange signals to register that contact. This is to create an anonymous log. App users will then receive a warning that a corona patient may have transmitted the virus to them or where it happened, without hearing who that person is.

It remains to be seen whether technology can make a good estimate of the risk. In addition, it is not known how large the group of people is who unconsciously walk around with the coronavirus, but do not (yet) have any symptoms. In other words: the group of people who benefit from such a warning.

False start after first announcement

Less than two weeks after Minister De Jonge announced on April 7 that he was considering the use of corona apps, seven parties presented their idea to the general public, after which the app should go into production at the end of April. That plan fell through when none of the seven apps turned out to be suitable.

The ministry had also already jumped out of the starting blocks, for it was clear what exactly the GGD would like with such an app. A GGD committee that determined the conditions that a potential corona app should meet, submitted the final requirements a week after the seven presentations.

According to Sjaak de Gouw, the chairman of this GGD committee, it is worth investigating how a corona app can support the GGDs as soon as the Netherlands goes out of the lockdown and the test capacity is increased. That period starts on Monday.

For the time being, the GGDs simply do their work without an app

The end of the lockdown means that the GGDs have to scale up. Anyone with complaints can get tested from Monday. Source and contact research is carried out for each positive case.

Without digital support, but with a larger capacity. "Our expectation is that it will work," said a spokesman for the umbrella organization of the 25 GGD regions.

The GGD spokesman said GHOR is open to digital support if they can make work "faster and easier". "But is it necessary for the source and contact research? No."

As long as the testing policy does not change, the usefulness of an app warning is also questionable. Whoever receives a notification cannot be automatically tested. So they cannot check whether they carry the COVID-19 virus. "Without complaints, there is no point in taking a test," the Ministry of Health and the GGD GHOR emphasized on Wednesday.

From 1 June, anyone with complaints associated with the coronavirus can be tested. Terraces and restaurants are also allowed to open under certain conditions and public transport runs according to the normal timetable. (Photo: Getty Images)

Many questions about the accuracy and usefulness of a warning

The question is whether and what an app will add. How seriously do people take that warning? Are they going to act on the advice that the app then gives? Can the signals exchanged by phones at all be converted into something that indicates the risk? How can people be prevented from being given a wrongful warning?

Before the corona app is released, the government is waiting a long time to get an answer to these questions, among other things. The Ministry of Health first focuses on technology.

The first tests must take place in mid-June. If the technology proves suitable, it will then have to become clear whether the app can actually play a role in the fight against the corona virus.

Follow the latest developments around the virus in our live blog.

The coronavirus in short

  • The coronavirus mainly spreads through sneezes and cough drops. Most patients have mild (flu-like) complaints. These are the symptoms.
  • Read here what rules there are to contain the outbreak.
  • We have also translated these measures into Arabic, English, Polish and Turkish.
  • In our corona guide we give you an overview of all reliable information and what you should and can do now that you are at home a lot.