By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) – Northern Ireland on Friday launched the United Kingdom’s first COVID-19 tracing app, and the first one that can also trace users in another country, Ireland, who have been in contact with someone suffering from the disease.

The developer NearForm, which hopes the app will become a blueprint eventually synching up all of Europe, launched a similar app in Ireland on July 8, and cases can now be traced across the island’s open border by two separate health services.

NearForm’s technical director Colm Harte said the technical approach it used in developing StopCovid NI would work with apps across the rest of the UK and that it could apply across Europe if countries agree how to share and store data.

Scotland’s devolved government announced on Friday that its tracing app is in development using the same software as Ireland’s and is also being built by NearForm.

It is due to be available in the autumn.

“It’s definitely doable, it’s technically very doable because more and more countries are switching across to the Apple and Google API’s (application programming interface),” Harte told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“I think it will happen. I don’t know when but countries across Europe are aware that there’s more people starting to travel now, this is a problem that’s going to have to be solved.”

DOZENS OF USERS ALERTED

Britain moved to the same Apple and Google model last month when it ditched a homegrown model initially due in May.

NearForm, based in the seaside town of Tramore in southern Ireland, is building Pennsylvania’s contact tracing app and is in discussions with other states and governments after the successful Irish launch, Harte said.

Almost 1.5 million people, or 37% of the Irish Republic’s population over the age of 15, have downloaded the Irish app since July 8 and 137 users have been alerted via the app that they have been in close contact with a confirmed case.

Ireland has had one of the lowest infection rates in Europe in recent weeks with an average of around 20 per day until a spike on Thursday. Northern Ireland has a similarly low rate with no related deaths reported since July 12.

NearForm’s Harte said that if either app can break even a handful of transmission chains, it will be a success.

“You can get into conversations about how many it needs to break before it’s considered really successful, but its goal is to break transmission chains. As soon as it’s doing that, it’s having an impact,” he said.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Cawthorne)

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