Public testing begins on new NHS contact-tracing app

Written by Sam Trendall on 14 August 2020 in News
News

Software based on Apple and Google systems made available to Isle of Wight residents, with those in Newham to follow shortly

Credit: Loopzilla/CC BY-SA 3.0

Public trials have begun for the new-look NHS Test and Trace app, with additional features including test-booking and an isolation countdown clock.

The government has sent special codes allowing residents of the Isle of Wight and those signed up as NHS Volunteer Responders to download the software. The trial will be expanded shortly to include people living in the London borough of Newham.

The goal of the testing process is to allow officials working on the NHS Test and Trace scheme to “rigorously evaluate the app in real-world settings to monitor performance and identify improvements ready for national launch”.

The technology, which is based on a system jointly developed by Apple and Google, works by using Bluetooth technology to track the distance between devices, and how long they spend in close proximity to one another. If a user later tests positive for Covid-19, those who have come into close contact with them for a sustained period of time will be alerted through the app.

No personal data is collected or gathered centrally, with each registered device assigned a randomly generated identification which is then used to track their movement in relation to other devices. These identifications will also be “rotating frequently to prevent tracking”, the government said.

This is in contrast to the app initially developed by NHSX, which the government hoped would enable it to collate data that on the spread of coronavirus that could be studied by public-health officials. This technology was originally due to be launched in May.


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But, after testing found that the app could only successfully detect 75% of contacts from Android devices – and just 4% from iPhones – the program was scrapped in mid-June.

By contrast, the Apple-Google software has a 99% success rate on both operating systems. Although it has been found to be slightly less effective at precisely estimating distance than the NHSX-developed technology.

Once users have been alerted to contact with a confirmed coronavirus case, the new-look app can then also be used to book a test, and receive the results. Other features included in the program include information on levels of coronavirus cases in a user’s postcode area and advice on symptoms. In cases where self-isolation is required, the app also provides guidance and a timer to count down the isolation period required.

Dido Harding, executive chair of the NHS Test and Trace scheme, said that while it does not represent a “silver bullet in tackling coronavirus… the app is a great step forward”.

“It’s really important that we make it as easy as possible for everyone to engage with NHS Test and Trace,” she added. “By launching an app that supports our integrated, localised approach to NHS Test and Trace, anyone with a smartphone will be able to find out if they are at risk of having caught the virus, quickly and easily order a test, and access the right guidance and advice.”

The new app was developed by the government in collaboration with both Apple and Google, as well as scientists from Oxford University and the Alan Turing Institute. Input was also sought from other countries that have already launched a similar app, such as Germany.

Testing venues
The Isle of Wight was used as a venue for the public testing process of the previous app and it has been chosen to take part once again because it is “a controlled geographical area, allowing the service to particularly test features like the QR code check-in and the alert and contact tracing reliability,” the government said. 

“Newham is an area with a diverse population who might be more at risk to the virus, so trialling the app here will ensure that it meets the needs of a range of different communities,” it added.

The participation of NHS Volunteer Responders – of which there are about 750,000 around the country – is intended to “test that the app is ready to scale ahead of national launch”.

The government said that it will work with partner agencies in Newham and the Isle of Wight to promote the app and encourage uptake.

Mayor of Newham Rokhsana Fiaz said: “We know that Newham has seen some of the most significant impacts of Covid-19 due to the health inequalities and vulnerabilities in our communities. With the threat of COVID-19 still with us, it’s vital we support our residents to keep safe and help others. The app is a welcomed addition to all the measures that our public health team have put in place working closely with our local health partners. With its easy to use features, the app will be available in different languages and comes with the assurance that personal data stays with the user so that people’s privacy is protected.”

The announcement of the launch of public testing for the app came alongside the publication of fresh weekly figures that showed the manual contact-tracing programme is still failing to reach a significant proportion of those who confirmed coronavirus cases, as well as their close contacts.

In the week to 5 August, more than one in five of 3,962 people that tested positive for coronavirus could not be reached after their details were transferred to the Test and Trace system. The success rate of 79.7% was down a little on the 80.5% rate of the prior week.

More than a quarter of the 15,308 people they identified as close contacts could also not be contacted. Although the 74.2% success rate represented a slight rise on the 72.4% of the previous week.

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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