UK contact-tracing app to be launched ‘shortly’ as Northern Ireland deploys service

Launch imminent for long-awaited and controversial mobile application described as ‘cherry on the cake’ of UK’s Covid-19 test and trace strategy

After appearing to have almost fallen off the radar, the UK’s coronavirus contact-tracing app is back and will be officially launched soon, according to Dido Harding, executive chair of NHS Test and Trace.

In the foreword to a UK government policy paper, Breaking chains of Covid-19 transmission to help people return to more normal lives: developing the NHS Test and Trace service, which sets out the steps the UK government is taking to combat the pandemic, Harding said that launching an app would be part of an “ambitious and challenging” plan that includes doubling testing capacity, making testing easily accessible to everyone, expanding local public health teams and launching backward contact tracing.

Harding said her team would deliver an app that reduces the risk of people contracting the virus and transmitting it to others. She said that when launched, the app would: enable citizens to identify symptoms and “seamlessly” order a test and, if they need to self-isolate, feel supported during the period of self-isolation; enable people to scan the unique quick response (QR) codes of venues they have visited to aid contact tracing and help understand the spread of the virus; and quickly identify when they have been exposed to people who have Covid-19 or locations that may have been the source of multiple infections.

Harding said an initial version of the app would be released “shortly” to a selected group of users to gather rapid feedback on user experience. “We will then further develop and roll out the app, based on user experience and testing to create more targeted advice and support for users,” she said.

“The real power of the app will come with mass adoption – and we will work with the public, business and public services to reach as high a proportion as possible of smartphone users. We will ensure a strong focus on building trust and coverage in communities that are at greater risk from Covid-19 and/or are currently less likely to engage with NHS Test and Trace.”

However, similar promises on delivery of the app have already been made and have failed to come through. In fact, the contact-tracing app’s whole development has been plagued by missteps since details of its construction were first aired in April 2020 and it has fallen behind every launch target.

In June, the app took a sea-change in its form and is now being developed using a decentralised data collection app model based on Google and Apple application programming interface (API) technology, and not the previous much-criticised centralised database structure that is still in test phase on the Isle of Wight.

The UK government gave an assurance that, at launch, the app would bring together the work done so far on the NHS Covid-19 app and the new Google/Apple framework to create an app that will enable anyone with a smartphone to engage with every aspect of the NHS Test and Trace service, from ordering a test through to accessing the right guidance and advice.

This, it said, would help more people get back to the most normal life possible at the lowest risk. The app is built using the Google/Apple API and a QR code system, both of which are based on a decentralised model in which the government does not have access to citizen data. Any services that require more information from a citizen will be provided only on the basis of explicit consent.

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But the catalogue of delays has left the UK way behind other countries, including the Republic of Ireland and now Northern Ireland. Following a number of tests in May and June – the first by members of the An Garda Siochana police force who volunteered to take part in field trials to see how the app would perform in everyday situations, and then Trinity College Dublin, which investigated performance on public transport – the Irish app has now been live for a number of days and is reported to have been downloaded by 1.45 million people.

The app, developed by Irish software firm NearForm, has also been designed to support UK mobile numbers so that visitors crossing the border from Northern Ireland or travelling across from Britain can also make use of it.

The benefits of an all-Ireland app have crossed traditional political and sectarian divides. On 4 May, Northern Ireland Assembly health minister Robin Swann urged the creation of an app that could work across the island. And the government has just announced that a NearForm-constructed app is now available for download.

The StopCOVID NI proximity app will anonymously alert users if they have been in close contact with another user who has tested positive for the virus and will work alongside the Public Health Agency’s existing telephone-based contact-tracing operation. Available to users in Northern Ireland from the Apple and Google app stores, StopCOVID NI is compatible with the Republic of Ireland’s contact-tracing app and is also expected to be compatible with the app being developed by the NHS for use in Britain.

Meanwhile, Germany’s contact-tracing app has so far been a huge success. As it released its second-quarter results, co-developer SAP, which worked in partnership with Deutsche Telekom, said the Corona Warning App, which went live on 15 June, has been downloaded more than 16 million times.

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