Swiss to pioneer use of coronavirus tracing app in Europe

A limited group of users, including members of the armed forces, hospital staff as well as government employees are currently testing the SwissCovid mobile phone application. Keystone / Laurent Gillieron

Parliament has given the green light for the public launch of SwissCovid, a contact tracing application to help contain the coronavirus pandemic. 

swissinfo.ch/urs with input from Armando Mombelli

On Monday, the House of Representatives followed the Senate in approving a law setting the legal basis for the app, which will use Bluetooth waves to allow smartphones to communicate with each other anonymously. 

The DP-3T system was developed by the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne with expertise from the US technology giants Google and Apple. 

The app stores users’ smartphone data for 21 days, allowing them to be notified if they have come into close contact with infected people. 

The use of SwissCovid is voluntary and the data collected is stored on decentralised servers, some operated by the state, as well as some by Amazon Web Services in Germany. 

It is expected the app will be made available to the general public at the end of June, serving as a tool to prevent a potential second wave of Covid-19 infections in the country. 

Switzerland has so far reported about 31,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 1,660 deaths related to Covid-19, but the government has gradually eased sweeping restrictions on public life as the number of new cases has fallen sharply. 

Complementary 

The app is part of the health authorities’ strategy to trace all infections, isolating patients and quarantining people who are at risk after having come into close contact with an infected person – that is, within a distance of less than two metres over a period of at least 15 minutes. 

People who are notified by the app are asked to consult an information service to receive advice on how to seek medical treatment and how to protect others from infection. 

The cantonal authorities continue to track all reported cases of coronavirus. 

Patients are contacted via phone in a bid to identify and find all people who may also have been infected. They are asked to go into quarantine and consult a doctor if they develop symptoms and they need medical care. 

Surveillance 

Criticism of the app came mainly from some members of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party during Monday’s debate in the House of Representatives. 

Thomas de Courten warned against a system of state surveillance that would compromise privacy, saying it reminded him of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. 

Interior Minister Alain Berset, whose portfolio includes health issues, tried to dispel such concern, saying the use of the SwissCovid app was voluntary. 

Experts hope that at least 60% of the population will install the app on their mobile phones to yield a critical mass of data. 

People who test positive for Covid-19 have to stay at home and are eligible for financial benefits as a result of absence from work, Berset explained. 

Currently about 60,000 people in Switzerland are using the SwissCovid app on a trial basis and feedback has been mostly positive, he added. 

The government initially planned to introduce the tracing device without creating a legal basis regulating the details, including access to free tests for a person who receives a notification on the app. However, parliament last month insisted on a regular legislative procedure.

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