Coronavirus: Contact-tracing rumours debunked

By Jack Goodman and Flora Carmichael
BBC Reality Check

  • Published
Two women hold signs at an anti-lockdown protestImage source, Getty Images

There have been false rumours circulating on social media about contact-tracing apps that are being introduced by governments to stop the spread of coronavirus.

We've been looking into some of them and other dubious coronavirus claims.

The NHS app

In the UK, the NHS contract-tracing app has been a focus of conspiracies and false rumours. The mobile-phone software is being introduced to help work out who an infected person might have spread the virus to, but it's run into technical problems and the launch has been delayed.

One message we've seen being copied and pasted on Facebook asks the poster's friends to delete them as contacts from their phone and unfriend them on Facebook as the app will "ask permission to access all of your contacts".

This post misrepresents how the app works. It does not access a user's phone contacts but instead records when two people who both have the app are within a certain distance of each other for longer than a specified amount of time.

Another variation that has been shared hundreds of times on Facebook claims that app users who walk past someone who later gets "flu" symptoms will automatically have to be quarantined, along with all their family.

But users who receive a notification from the app that they have been near someone who has developed symptoms do not automatically have to go into quarantine. If they live in a household where no-one is showing symptoms, they will be asked to follow social-distancing advice and look out for symptoms.

This story, which has been marked as containing "false information" by third-party fact checkers on Facebook, also claims you could be forced to have a vaccine under the new coronavirus law. There is no current legislation in the UK that can force you to take a vaccine.

A few weeks ago, Boris Johnson's senior aide was the target of false rumours connected to the contact-tracing app. There was no truth in the social-media posts that suggested that Dominic Cummings' sister worked for a company running the app.

Fact-checking organisation Full Fact carried out an investigation and concluded that the woman named wasn't his sister and the company named hadn't been involved in the app.

The development of the NHS contact-tracing app has been accompanied by all manner of misinformation and conspiracy theories - but there are some genuine issues about privacy. The UK has chosen to go down a centralised route, but many other countries are developing decentralised apps. The team behind the UK app has insisted that this route will give the NHS more valuable information about how the virus is spreading.

Tracing apps don't require social distancing

Contact tracing features in an interview with an American doctor who says he "doesn't believe in Covid-19".

Asked why there's distancing in place, he says one reason may be to facilitate "tracking software - the contact-tracing programmes".

This seems to misconstrue the aims of social distancing and contact tracing - and the use of any app to support it - which is to prevent the spread of the virus alongside the easing of social-distancing rules.

Dr Kaufman suggests the signal for the "tracking software" is clearer if people are separated from each other. But this isn't how the apps will work because they use your device's unique digital signature irrespective of how close it is to another phone.

In the video Andrew Kaufman also explains his opposition to lockdowns and vaccinations.

Several uploads of this post have been removed from YouTube for violating its community policies.

A page administrator for a local group in Hampshire told the BBC that they had removed the video along with multiple anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown posts over the last few days.

Another administrator from a page based in Cornwall said that controversial posts were fine, as long as discussion remained "civil".

Aspirin is not a Covid cure

While we're here, one last series of widely shared posts is worth highlighting.

Near-identical Facebook entries in multiple languages claim Italy has discovered a coronavirus cure. The posts falsely claim that coronavirus is not a virus but a bacterium causing deadly blood clots.

It's true that Covid-19 has led to blood clots in some of the most severe cases in patients with pneumonia. Bacterial infections do develop after contracting a virus. But the disease Covid-19 is caused by a virus.

Bear in mind that blood clots can also appear in the lungs, caused by pneumonia from ordinary flu, and anyone going into hospital is at increased risk of blood clots, too.

The posts go on to argue that antibiotics, aspirin and anticoagulants (often used to treat blood clots) can therefore cure coronavirus. They can't - there is no known cure and the WHO warns against self-medication to treat the virus, including with antibiotics.

The sources of this information are apparently Italian doctors and the Italian ministry of health. We have emailed the ministry for comment.

Posts have been doing the rounds since mid-May in English, Tagalog, Russian and Spanish.

Additional reporting by Olga Robinson and Alistair Coleman.