Contact-tracing app launches today

Major networks announce that use of program will not be taken from data allowances

Credit: NHS

The NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app has launched today across England and Wales.

For the last six weeks the technology has been going through a public-testing process in which residents of the Isle of Wight and the London Borough of Newham have been invited to download the app.

It is now available to all citizens of England and Wales through Apple and Android app stores. As of 1pm on Tuesday, it has been downloaded from the latter somewhere between 500,000 and one million times.

According to the government, more than 160,000 businesses have also already downloaded QR codes which can be printed and displayed in their venues allowing users of the app to check in.

Once the program has been downloaded, users are asked to confirm that they are over 16 years of age, before being required to agree to terms of use and a privacy notice.

“The app securely and anonymously stores data for 14 days after it has been recorded,” the app says. “You can delete the data from the app at any time in your app settings, or by uninstalling the app. Your phone may keep some basic data – this is controlled by your phone’s operating system.”

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Users are then asked to provide the first half of their postcode, before being informed that, to enable contact tracing, they must allow ‘Exposure Notifications’, and ensure Bluetooth and location services are turned on. 

Once the installation process is complete, the app’s home screen (partially pictured above) displays at the top of the screen information on risk in the user’s local area.

Below is a menu of options where users can check in to a venue by scanning a QR code, check symptoms, read the latest NHS advice on coronavirus, enter a test result, read more about the app, or toggle contact tracing on and off.

For users that are advised to self-isolate, the app will also feature a clock to count down their isolation period.

Although users will need a mobile data or WiFi connection to download the app, the UK’s major mobile networks – including Vodafone, Three, EE, O2, giffgaff, Tesco Mobile, Sky, and Virgin – will not deduct any in-app activity from their customers’ data allowances or charge those on pay-as-you-go deals.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: “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. Today’s launch marks an important step forward in our fight against this invisible killer and I urge everyone who can to download and use the app to protect themselves and their loved ones.”

The app is arriving four months later than the government had originally intended. It first attempted to build a program that would allow it to gather and monitor data centrally. But, after several months of development and testing, and supplier contracts totalling more than £12m, this app was scrapped as it worked only 75% of the time on Android devices – and only 4% on iPhones.

The app that is launched today is based on an infrastructure jointly built by Apple and Google. This decentralised system does not store data anywhere other than on users’ devices.

The UK is one of several countries to have attempted to build its own, centralised technology before admitting defeat and adopting the Apple-Google system. Although others in this position, such as Denmark and Germany, managed to launch an app nationally in mid-June – before the UK had even abandoned its first attempt.

In a joint statement, Apple and Google said: “We built the exposure notifications system to enable public health authorities in their efforts to develop apps to help reduce the spread of the virus while ensuring people can trust in the privacy-preserving design. We are committed to supporting the government’s effort to launch an app based on this technology.”


Sam Trendall

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