UK government reveals more insight into imminent contact-tracing app

Head of Track and Trace and health minister stung by criticism about contact-tracing app’s development compared with Scotland and Ireland, but reveals further details of app that is on track for 24 September launch

It may have arrived four months later than originally proposed, but the much-delayed and much-criticised UK contact-tracing app will provide a real spur to the nation’s NHS Test and Trace apparatus, the programme’s head Dido Harding assured a UK Parliamentary committee.

After nearly two hours of grilling by the Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee about the perilous state of the UK’s Covid-19 testing infrastructure for which she is ultimately responsible, Harding attempted to assure that after missing its first scheduled launch in mid-May, followed by further delays due to a number of technology issues, the NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app was now set to launch across England and Wales on 24 September.

Harding was accompanied by James Bethell, Parliamentary under-secretary of state for the Department for Health and Social Care; and Simon Thompson, managing director of NHS app Test and Trace, at the meeting.

Ongoing trials in Newham, on the Isle of Wight and with NHS volunteer responders are said to have shown that the app, when used alongside traditional contact-tracing methods, is highly effective in contacting people who have tested positive for coronavirus.

Following its launch, customers and visitors to businesses in England and Wales will be able to use the Covid-19 app to check in with their phone instead of filling out a visitor book or tool specific to a business. This will allow NHS Test and Trace to contact customers and provide public health advice should there be a Covid-19 outbreak associated with a venue they have visited.

For the past week or so, the UK government has been urging businesses in England and Wales to ensure they have the necessary QR code capabilities in place, such as a downloadable poster, visible on entry, so customers who have downloaded the NHS Covid-19 app can use their smartphones to easily check in to premises.

In his evidence to the committee, Bethell showed his department’s own poster, which he said had been in use for the past three weeks and offered “positive proof” of the efficacy of the app.

Thompson gave fuller details of the app and the basic contact-tracing functionality that it has based on a major revision made in August, which alerts app users if they have been within 2m proximity of an app user who has indicated that they have tested positive for Covid-19.

Thompson bracketed the key enhancements these under two basic categories: the ‘me’ and ‘we’ features.

The ‘me’ features have been designed to help citizens manage their own individual risk, and Thompson said: “We have a capability called Alert, which means that it will give you an awareness and a warning of what’s going on around your host district area. That means that, as you leave your house, you understand what you should do based on the medical advice you have.

“The second is a system that we call Check In. By using the QR code [at the premises], it means that, if there was an outbreak in an area where you’ve been, we would be able to get in touch with you by getting a message to that device.

“We have a symptom checker, and you can book a test online through the app as well. The app also has an Isolation Companion, where the app will be there as your companion to let you know how long you need to isolate for.”

Thompson gave further advice as to how the app would work in the real world and avoid giving positive results, such as from a mobile device being behind a screen and sending out a false result. He noted that there were three distinct scenarios where the app allows users to switch off contact tracing by a simple press of the button on the front of the three conditions.

“The first one is that you are wearing PPE, the second is that you’re working behind a Perspex screen, and the third one is another use case is that people might be leaving their device in a locker. These are the three cases where we would recommend that you switch the contact tracing off.”

He added that one of the key learnings from the extended trial period was a feature not available at the start, whereby people asked whether they could get a reminder to switch the app back on.

Bethell added that even though the app for England and Wales is not launching until 24 September, the QR code system that works alongside it is now live. He estimated that up to 15,000 organisations had already downloaded QR codes.

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