Undecided citizens are the deciding factor when introducing corona app

The Dutch have widely varying opinions on the desirability of a tracking and tracing corona app. Some prefer to install the app as soon as possible, while others strongly oppose the fact that the government is planning to introduce the app. In addition, there is a 'undecided' group that needs more information about the conditions and features of the app. This group of doubters may be decisive for the government's aim to achieve the desired coverage ratio of 60%. This is the main result of a choice experiment by researchers from Delft University of Technology, Maastricht University and VU Amsterdam, in collaboration with RIVM.

06/09/2020 | 7:00 AM

The main results are accesseble via www.tudelft.nl/coronaapp

To help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Dutch government is currently developing of a tracking and tracing app. The government suggested that in order for the app to be effective, use and adherence would need to be very high with 60% of the Dutch population needing to use the app in order to completely stop the pandemic spreading. To investigate citizens’ preferences for the corona app, researchers from Delft University of Technology, Maastricht University and VU Amsterdam  (Marion Collewet) set up a choice experiment. Different versions of the app were presented to a randomly selected sample of 926 Dutch citizens. Participants were then asked which app they would prefer to install, and whether they would actually install that app.

The survey showed that the participants had varying opinions about installing the corona app. The researchers have been researching Dutch preferences about government policy in various domains for years, but they have not seen such great variety before. A summary of the main findings:

Supporters of the app
Some participants would rather install the app today than tomorrow. They see it as an effective tool to contain the coronavirus and to prevent as many infections as possible. There are also participants who would install the app to protect people with fragile health. Participants who indicated that they would install the app for instance said:
"I want Covid-19 to stop and do everything in my power to prevent further spread." 
"I provide informal care and I don't want to infect others, vulnerable ones. That's the main reason why I want to install such an app."

Opponents of the app
The group of participants that indicates they would not install the app under any circumstance is of a similar size as the group that indicates that they would install the app. Opponents feel that the app is too much of an invasion of their privacy.
"This system makes me feel like a dog on the chain."
"The most important thing is privacy. That can never be 100 percent guaranteed. Certainly not if your data is shared with the municipal health service (GGD)."

Varying opinions on policies regarding corona app
Preferences of participants in the choice experiment do not only differ with regard to the desirability of the app as such, but also on the desirability of potential policy choices. Two clusters can be distinguished:
The first cluster believes that the notification of a contact with an infected person should not only be sent to the person himself/herself but also to the Municipal Health Service (GGD), and that shops and the hospitality industry should be allowed to refuse people who do not have the app on their phones. These participants are more likely to install the app if the positive social effects (e.g. the prevention of infections and deaths) are large.
The second cluster rejects the obligation to report to the Municipal Health Service (GGD) and the possibility for shops to refuse people if they did not install the corona app. They consider the positive social effects to be less important.

The importance of the ‘undecided group’
The government aims for at least 60% of the Dutch population to install the corona app. The choice experiment shows that there is a large ‘middle group’ that has many questions about the app, and will probably not install the app until these questions have been answered.

For example, will you also receive a notification where and within what distance the contact with an infected person took place, and how long the contact lasted? And on what grounds did the government decide whether or not to provide this more detailed information? The researchers therefore advise the government to communicate as clearly as possible how the app exactly works and why certain policy choices were made.

Timing of introduction
Several participants from the middle group stress the importance of thorough research before introducing the app. They fear that the app will lead to a feeling of a false sense of safety (i.e. app users will be less likely to adhere to the other corona measures) which will lead to an increasing number of corona infections. This need for comprehensive and evidence based decision-making among the undecided middle group leads to a dilemma: should the app be launched as soon as possible to meet the needs of those who would like to install the app as soon as possible? Or should the government meet the needs of the middle group, and only launch the app when there is more knowledge about, for example, the risks of a false sense of safety, and the preferences of the potential users on whether or not to provide detailed information about the location and time of contact with an infected person?
"Yes I think it's a good idea, but then everything has to be really well thought through."
"I understand the underlying idea, but coming up with a good reliable app in a short period of time is not easy. I'm afraid there'll be more problems afterwards."

Why a choice experiment?
Currently, preferences are often measured through opinion polls that ask whether or not people would install the app. A disadvantage of this type of polls is that participants do not know exactly what they are expressing their preferences about. Moreover, it is more difficult for people to answer questions such as 'do you think public health or privacy is more important in your decision-making on app installation' than to choose between two corona apps that differ in the extent to which the app helps to contain the coronavirus and safeguards privacy. A choice experiment makes it possible to analyse how the Dutch consider different characteristics of the corona app in their decision whether or not to install it.