Government wants phone companies to help monitor if people are staying socially distant

Customers form a queue at the Tesco store in Mather Avenue, Liverpool, ahead of it opening. Photogra

Customers form a queue at the Tesco store in Mather Avenue, Liverpool, ahead of it opening. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

Ministers are asking phone operators to see if mobile data can help government understand if people are following social distancing advice to tackle the coronavirus.

BT, which owns EE, said it was in talks with the government over how it could aid in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

O2 said it had been asked to support those mapping and seeking to control the spread of the virus, but ruled out allowing individuals to be identified.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has said the tide could be turned in the fight against the disease within 12 weeks, but only if the public heeded the social distancing advice.

Otherwise, he has not ruled out bringing in more draconian measures that impinge on civil liberties in order to save lives.

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The government's response to the outbreak could be shaped by the use of anonymised data and creating movement maps, the Guardian reported.

A BT spokeswoman said: 'We are talking with the government about a number of areas in which we may be able to assist with the national public health effort.

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'In relation to the use of mobile data, we are still actively exploring possibilities. As always, we are mindful of the privacy of our customers, while making sure we do everything that might help the medical authorities in the fight against coronavirus.'

O2 stressed it would not share data that would be able to identify or map individuals, only very broad mass movements.

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'Besides zero rating access to NHS and other support websites, we were asked along with other mobile operators to support those who are working tirelessly to map and control the spread of coronavirus in the UK,' a spokesman said.

''Using our mobile technology, we have the potential to build models that help to predict broadly how the virus might move. This would in no way be able to identify or map individuals, and operates within strict privacy guidelines.'

Downing Street declined to comment.

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