NHS

NHS contact-tracing app for England and Wales launches nationwide

Arriving over four months later than originally proposed, the much-delayed and much-criticised UK Covid-19 contact-tracing app is now available to download

All of the politics, all of the delays, all of the technical and scientific debates about efficacy and purpose are over: the official NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app is now available to all smartphone users in England and Wales.

After what the app’s developer, NHSX, described as “positive trials and rigorous testing”, the app is being touted as an important new tool to work alongside the UK’s currently struggling traditional contact-tracing apparatus. It will form a central part of the NHS Test and Trace service in England and the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect programme, identifying contacts of those who have tested positive for Covid-19 and helping to prevent further spread of the virus.

The launch follows extensive trials of the app in the London Borough of Newham, on the Isle of Wight and among NHS volunteer responders. The trials are said to have shown that the app, when used alongside traditional contact-tracing methods, is highly effective in tracing people who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.

The official app is a technological progression of the first version envisaged in April 2020, which was built using a much-criticised centralised database structure whose limitations were exposed in its first trial in April and May. This early version received criticism for a number of mishaps and technical issues, which led the Department of Health to make a U-turn on the underlying technology of the app, switching instead to a decentralised data collection model using Google and Apple application programming interface (API) technology.

Available to smartphone users aged 16 and over in multiple languages, the app includes proximity tracing using Bluetooth Low Energy, risk alerts based on postcode district, QR check-in at venues, a symptom checker and test booking. The contact-tracing element of the app works by logging the amount of time users spend near other app users, and the distance between them, so it can alert users if they have been close to a person who later tests positive for the virus.

In building the app, NHSX worked closely with major tech companies, including Google and Apple, scientists within the Alan Turing Institute and Oxford University, Zuhlke Engineering, medical experts, privacy groups, at-risk communities and teams in countries across the world using similar apps – such as those behind the very popular and successful German app.

Key features

Key functions have been bracketed into two categories: “me” and “we” features. The “me” features have been designed to help citizens manage their own individual risk. A capability called “alert” give users an awareness and a warning of what’s going on in a host district area. That means that as people leave their house, they can understand what they should do based on the medical advice they have.

A symptom checker allows users to book a test online through the app as well. The app also features an “isolation companion”, which provides a countdown that lets people know how long they need to isolate for.

The NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app is now available to download in England and Wales

Using official QR codes, a “check-in” facility allows customers and visitors to businesses in England and Wales 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.

Effective immediately, certain businesses in England will be required by law to display NHS Test and Trace QR codes so customers with the NHS Covid-19 app can scan them to check in. More than 160,000 businesses have already downloaded QR codes. Venues in Wales that are legally required to collect and keep a record of visitors will still need to do so.

Privacy concerns

Since its inception, the app has attracted criticism and sparked fears regarding data security and privacy. The UK government said the app has been designed with user privacy in mind so that it tracks the spread of the virus, not people, and uses “the latest in data security technology”.

It generates a random ID for each device, which can be exchanged between devices via Bluetooth rather than GPS. These unique random IDs regenerate frequently to add an extra layer of security and preserve anonymity. The app does not hold personal information such as names, addresses or dates of birth, and only requires the first half of a postcode to ensure local outbreaks can be managed. No personal data is shared with the government or the NHS.

“Today’s launch marks an important step forward in our fight against coronavirus. With infection rates rising we must use every tool at our disposal to prevent transmission, including the latest technology”
Matt Hancock, Department of Health & Social Care

As it was announcing availability of the app, the government revealed that the UK’s major mobile network operators, including Vodafone, Three, EE, O2, Sky and Virgin, had confirmed that in-app activity would not come out of customers’ data allowance.

Commenting on the launch, health secretary Matt Hancock said: “Today’s launch marks an important step forward in our fight against this invisible killer…We are at a tipping point in our efforts to control the spread of this virus. With infection rates rising we must use every tool at our disposal to prevent transmission, including the latest technology.

“We have worked extensively with tech companies, international partners, and privacy and medical experts – and learned from the trials – to develop an app that is secure, simple to use and will help keep our country safe.”

Yet there have also been dissenting voices. Privacy campaigners at the Open Rights Group and Big Brother Watch have joined forces to demand the government clarify how people’s private data will be kept safe and secure under the Test and Trace regulations, which have come into full force today alongside the launch of the NHS contact-tracing app.

The Health Foundation said that while evidence from recent pilots of the NHS app remained unpublished, major questions about its effectiveness were left unanswered.

“With a virus that is transmitted as quickly as Covid-19, the automated contact-tracing feature of the new NHS app could prove invaluable in reducing its spread,” commented senior fellow Josh Keith. “But major questions about its effectiveness are left unanswered, including how it will protect those communities that are most vulnerable to the virus yet may be among the least likely to use the app.

“The effectiveness of the app will be dependent on the public downloading it and changing their behaviour based on its advice… It is also important to recognise the app will not work in isolation – it is reliant on people being able to readily access tests when they need to. But the test and trace system faces considerable ongoing challenges.”

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