ROME: While the business community presses Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to end the lockdown soon and Catholic bishops hope to restart Church masses and funeral ceremonies, the Italian government is going digital against the coronavirus (COVID-19) infection. The Cabinet gave the green light to a deal for a smartphone app to track people who test positive for COVID-19.
As part of efforts to lift the nationwide lockdown as soon as possible, Coronavirus Procurement Commissioner Domenico Arcuri on Friday approved a deal for a tracking app to help in the battle against COVID-19.
Italy has the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe with more than 22,000 fatalities, second only in the world to the US. The government last week extended the national lockdown until May 3 but is looking at ways to loosen the draconian restrictions imposed more than a month ago to curb the epidemic.
Smartphone apps and other technology have been used in Asian countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, to control the spread of the virus, but there are deep misgivings in Europe over the potential for data abuse and privacy violations. The EU ordered that the installation of such technology should remain on a voluntary basis and assure the highest anonymity. Italy decided to do this to quicken the reopening of the economy as the business community is urging.
“We are working on testing a contact-tracing app in some Italian regions,” Domenico Arcuri, the government’s special commissioner for the COVID-19 emergency, told a press conference at the Civil Protection Headquarters. He said that the government aims to make the app available to the entire country after the regional tests have been completed. “It will be a pillar of our strategy to deal with the post-emergency phase,” Arcuri said.
Last month Italy’s Innovation Ministry launched a tender for app developers volunteering their services. “We received hundreds of proposals in a heartbeat, and we examined them all thoroughly so that we could make sure that efficiency and privacy would be guaranteed,” Innovation minister Paola Pisano said. A special committee selected the product put forward by the Milan-based company Bending Spoons.
Bending Spoons develops apps ranging from fitness to video-editing tools, and is part of the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) initiative. PEPP-PT is promoting a European platform to allow national contact-tracing apps “talk” to each other across borders.
According to the daily newspaper Il Tempo in Rome, Luigi, Barbara and Eleonora Berlusconi, the youngest children of the media tycoon and former prime minister of Italy, are among the company’ shareholders with their H14 investment fund.
The application, initially named Immuni, uses Bluetooth technology to record when users are in close proximity with each other, people with knowledge of the matter said. If someone tests positive for the coronavirus, the app would send an alert to users who have been in contact with the infected individual, recommending actions such as self-quarantine and virus testing while preserving anonymity.
Advocates of Bluetooth technology say this method is a more accurate and less intrusive way to log proximity and the length of contact than location-tracking based on networks or satellites, which have been used in some Asian countries.
Commissioner Arcuri specified the app will be used voluntarily, in line with recommendations by Italy’s data protection authority and European privacy rules. “But our hope is that Italian citizens will adopt it massively, as everyone’s support in this country is needed to make a contact-tracing system work,” he said. According to experts in the Innovation and Health ministries in Rome the app needs to be downloaded by at least 60 percent of the population to be effective in achieving so-called digital herd immunity.
“That’s the best we have available so far, and I am confident that Italian people will follow our advice and use the app. This is for everyone’s safety and sake, and we hope that it will give us all massive help,” Pisano added. “The government will do its best to promote its use.”
The government’s statistics agency Istat revealed that the increase in deaths in the country has been more than 20 percent up in the period between March 1 and April 4 2020 compared to the average figure for the same period in the years 2015-2019.
Italy is unlikely to follow Germany’s lead into reopening schools in May.
“The government will take a decision within days, but in the current health situation reopening in May becomes less likely with every passing day. It would mean mobilizing 8 million students”, Education Minister Lucia Azzolina told the Corriere della Sera newspaper. She said that she also does “not like the idea of students with masks at school” and that it would be impractical to ask children to respect social distancing.
The Italian Bishops Conference (CEI) claims social distancing can be kept in churches and is planning to start holding regular religious services after May 3 when the lockdown is scheduled to end. More than 100 priests have died in Italy so far from COVID-19, the Italian Bishops revealed in a press conference. “They have offered up their lives, expressing once again the beautiful face of the church,” a spokesman said.