Hancock hails ‘defining moment’ in virus response as NHS contact-tracing app to launch nationwide this month

Businesses urged to prepare for 24 September

Credit: Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

The NHS contact-tracing app is finally to launch across England and Wales later this month.

The government announced that the NHS Covid-19 app will be made available for all citizens to download from Apple and Android app stores on 24 September.  The technology has spent the last month been in a public testing phase in which residents of the Isle of Wight and the London borough of Newham have been invited to trial the software.

Ahead of the national launch date, businesses and community facilities are encouraged to make sure they print and display QR code posters at all entry points of their venues. Visitors can then use their phone to scan this code to ‘check in’ to the location. 

App users will be notified if the Bluetooth technology on their phone detects that they may have come into close contact – which is defined as at least 15 minutes at a distance of two metres or less – with someone that later tested positive for coronavirus. These updates may contain “advice on what to do based on the level of risk”.

Details of neither individuals nor locations will be provided in these notifications. Information on venues visited will be stored on users’ phones for 21 days, and thereafter deleted. 

All other data will be stored solely on individual phones – and not by government or businesses.

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The NHS website offers an online service where businesses and public-sector entities can create and download printable QR code posters to display at their venues. Pubs, restaurants, cinemas, hairdressers, beauty salons, gyms, leisure centres, sports facilities, and libraries are all urged to do so. 

Businesses that have already implemented their own QR code system for gathering customer details are advised to switch to the NHS system. In cases where automated check-in is not possible, visitor details must still be taken manually, and firms must maintain a means of doing so.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: “We need to use every tool at our disposal to control the spread of the virus including cutting-edge technology. The launch of the app later this month across England and Wales is a defining moment and will aid our ability to contain the virus at a critical time. QR codes provide an easy and simple way to collect contact details to support the NHS Test and Trace system.”

The launch of the app is four months later than originally intended, after the original version developed by NHSX at a cost of over £12m was scrapped. The government had hoped to create a program through which it could gather and collate data to help inform public-health policy.

But trials found that the technology hardly worked at all on iPhones, and only three-quarters of the time on Android devices.

The app that will be launched shortly is based on a platform jointly developed by Apple and Google and used as the basis for similar apps in a number of other countries. Unlike the NHSX-developed software, it uses a decentralised model in which no information is stored centrally – only on users’ devices.

A number of countries – including Italy, Germany and Denmark – also began developing their own centralised apps, before abandoning them and implementing a program based on the Apple-Google system.

Even among this company, the UK represents a significant laggard; 18 June marked both the day that the UK announced it was to scrap its original app and the day that a decentralised app was made available across Denmark. Germany had launched its contact-tracing app two days prior, having abandoned attempts to build its own technology back in April.

Separately, a contact-tracing app was launched across Scotland yesterday and over 600,000 people have already downloaded it. This represents more than one in ten of the country’s 5.5 million population.

Writing on Twitter, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “There’s a new way to help fight Covid in Scotland. ‘Protect Scotland’ – our confidential contact tracing app – will anonymously notify app users you’ve been in close contact with, should you test positive. Please download, and let’s all protect Scotland.”


Sam Trendall

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