Tony Blair calls for new 'digital ID' so people can prove coronavirus

Tony Blair calls for new ‘digital ID’ so people can prove their coronavirus ‘disease status’ alongside test and trace programmes as world eases out of lockdown

  • The former Prime Minister was speaking at virtual CogX technology conference
  • Mr Blair said a digital ID was a ‘natural evolution’ to navigate daily life
  • He said the ‘Covid crisis’ gives an additional reason to adopt a digital ID  
  • NHS Test and Trace scheme launched in England and Scotland at end of May 
  • Mr Blair said ID system would operate alongside track and trace programmes
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

People will need a new form of ‘digital ID’ so they can prove their ‘disease status’ as the world moves out of lockdown, Tony Blair has said.

The former Prime Minister said that only if people can show easily whether they are clear of coronavirus will industries like international travel be able to restart.

Speaking at the virtual CogX technology conference, Mr Blair said that such a system would operate alongside track and trace programmes as the economy reopens.

The NHS’s Test and Trace scheme was launched in England and Scotland at the end of May but has been beset by problems. 

Mr Blair had previously urged the Government to set up a mass testing programme which would see the bulk of the UK population checked for coronavirus, saying it is the only way to prevent a second outbreak. 

People will need a new form of ‘digital ID’ so they can prove their ‘disease status’ as the world moves out of lockdown, Tony Blair has said

‘You can create a digital ID today that is much more easily protected so you can deal with a lot of the privacy and surveillance issues that worry people,’ he said on Tuesday. 

‘It is a natural evolution of the way that we are going to use technology in any event to transact daily life and this Covid crisis gives an additional reason for doing that.

‘I think people’s disease status – have they been tested, what is the result of that test and have they had the disease, do they have the disease – unless you are able to record some of this data in a way people can use, it is going to be difficult to go back to anything like a near normal in things like transport.

Britain’s Covid-19 deaths rise by 286 

Britain’s coronavirus death toll today jumped by 286, with Northern Ireland having now gone three days in-a-row without recording a single fatality as the outbreak continues to fade.  

Department of Health figures show 277 of the Covid-19 victims were from England, while the other nine were in Wales. No laboratory-confirmed deaths were recorded in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It means the official number of coronavirus deaths now stands at 40,883. But separate grim statistics released today suggested the disease has already claimed at least 51,000 lives in the UK. 

Other data shows nearly 64,000 ‘excess deaths’ have already been recorded across the home nations since the outbreak spiralled out of control in March. 

Department of Health figures show 324 deaths were announced last Tuesday. And only 55 fatalities were posted yesterday, in the lowest daily toll since before lockdown was imposed on March 23. 

London hospitals also recorded no new fatalities for the first time since mid-March. But data released on Sundays and Mondays are always lower because of a delay in recording deaths at the weekend.      

‘If you are going to start international travel again, how can you do that unless people can be easily tested and have some record of that test?

‘There has always been a good case for introducing some form of digital ID but I think that case is even more powerful today.’

Mr Blair acknowledged the increasing use of technology risked leaving behind some people who were less comfortable with using it, but said the issue could be addressed through training and education.

‘That digital divide between those that are familiar and can use the new technology well and those who can’t is obviously going to be a big source of difficulty,’ he said.

However, he said people would need to adapt as some sectors of the economy would be changed forever as a result of the virus.

‘I can’t see the travel, tourism, hospitality industries coming back fast. I think bricks and mortar retail has probably had its day – certainly in its present form,’ he said. 

Last week, the former prime minister said the Government needs to make use of all available laboratory capacity and to support the roll out of ‘rapid, on-the-spot’ antigen and antibody checks. 

Antigen tests shows if someone currently has coronavirus while antibody tests show if someone has previously had the disease. 

Rapid antibody tests are now available while similar antigen tests which do not require processing in a lab are also in development. 

Mr Blair said those tests must form a key part of the Government’s strategy moving forward as he called for mass testing to replace the current approach of targeted testing of people with symptoms. 

Mr Blair said without the ability to take a snap shot of infection rates in the whole population it will be difficult to get out of lockdown quickly and safely while it will be ‘virtually impossible’ to make NHS Test and Trace work without an accompanying mass testing programme. 

The Government launched its NHS Test and Trace programme at the end of May. It sees anyone with symptoms told to self-isolate and get checked. 

If they test positive their close contacts are then also told to self-isolate even if they do not have any symptoms. 

However, the roll out of the programme has been beset with problems with staff complaining they do not have any work to do while a critical NHSX contact tracing app has been delayed. 

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps admitted last week that the app will not work effectively when it is eventually launched.  

He said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Anyone who downloads an app on their phone knows it is forever being updated and bugs squashed and all the rest of it. Apps are never complete in that sense.’ 

The ability to test millions of people would provide the UK with an ‘effective containment strategy’, Mr Blair claimed. 

He also insisted Britain’s testing efforts must be ‘tougher’ than other comparable countries because the scale of its outbreak has been that much worse than some of its neighbours.

Mr Blair told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the mass testing programme should be a mix of antigen tests which show if someone currently has coronavirus and antibody tests which show if someone has previously had the disease.

He said: ‘The plan is to instead of relying on targeted testing and testing only that is lab-based that we do mass testing using tests that are rapid, on-the-spot tests that are available now for antibodies, that are becoming available for antigen tests – that is, in other words, the test for whether you have the disease. 

‘My view is that this is probably the single most important decision the Government have got to take around containment at the moment and I think they have got to go back to their original strategy published back in April which was to have mass testing. 

The former prime minister said that only if people can show easily whether they are clear of coronavirus will industries like international travel be able to restart. Pictured: The full roll out of the NHS’s contact tracing app has been delayed 

‘They have departed from that and are now effectively only doing targeted testing and I think that this is going to make it much more difficult to get out of lockdown fast and I think it is going to be, I would say, virtually impossible to make track and trace work effectively unless you are combining it with mass testing.’ 

Mr Blair insisted fast tests are now available to be purchased by the Government and that ‘there are many British companies that are making them’. 

He also claimed the fast tests have been shown to be reliable. 

‘And as these antigen, rapid, on-the-spot tests come into being, and we suggest exactly how this is and what the Government should be doing in order to make sure it is backing the efforts to achieve these tests, including from British companies but also companies overseas, as you do that you will find you have got the ability to test the population at large and you are not simply testing those who have symptoms,’ he said.  

Mr Blair said rapid antibody tests were ‘absolutely for sure’ already available for mass purchasing and ‘you have got five or six British companies making these tests and selling them abroad or even selling them to people in this country’.

He added: ‘Now, antigen tests, they are being developed… a whole lot of those tests, there are about 15 that are commercially marketable now but obviously you have to validate those.

‘The United States in early May validated the first antigen rapid, on the spot test.’   

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