After much delay, the new NHS coronavirus contact tracing app has finally been released in England on 24th September 2020. It comes after a disappointing start, with the original app developed by the government having been a disastrous failure that was then scrapped in June. Within 24 hours of its release, over a million people have already downloaded the new app. Unfortunately, limitations and issues with the app have already been identified. Here’s everything you need to know about the new NHS COVID-19 Test & Trace app.
What Does The App Do?
The app notifies people to self-isolate if they’ve come near those that are suspected to have the virus. It’s also a check-in scan tool, so users can check into venues and be notified if somewhere they’ve visited has been found to have had a viral outbreak.
In speaking with Sky News, Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, has said about the app: “Every single person who downloads the app is helping to improve how it can keep us safe. It helps you to keep yourself and your loved ones safe” and that “every additional person downloading it will make the country a safer place.”
The current Test & Trace app has been trialled in Newham and the Isle of Wight with users age 18 and over. The age limit has been lowered for the full release, being opened up to anyone over 16. England is behind the curve within the UK as Northern Ireland and Scotland have already released their own apps for contact tracing.
Everyone aged over 16 is being encouraged to install the app, which is one part of the government’s strategy for controlling the spread of the virus. The statistics are becoming increasingly bleak. Rates of infection are growing at an unnerving rate, with 6,178 new infections and 37 deaths reported in the UK on Wednesday 23rd September.
How Does The App Work?
The new app has been developed by tech giants Google and Apple. It utilises Bluetooth to record an anonymous record of other people (or more accurately, other phones) the user has come in close proximity with.
The Test & Trace app requires Bluetooth to be turned on as the app runs continually in the background. The Health Secretary has said that the app is designed to have a minimal energy blueprint, so it shouldn’t drain your phone battery.
The app is being used alongside the 12,000 human contract tracers already employed by the government. All of the contract tracing efforts thus far have come under fire for lack of effectiveness, so there’s already doubt over whether the new app will work or whether enough people will have the desire to use it.
The app has convenient functionality with a few key features, including:
> Contact Notifications
If a user starts to feel unwell with possible coronavirus, or receives a positive Covid-19 test result, they can log this on the app. You can enter your symptoms and the app will let you know whether you need to self-isolate and book a diagnostic test or not. The app will then ‘ping’ other users you’ve been in close proximity to within the last 28 days, judging ‘high risk’ contact by the physical closeness and duration of time spent in contact. Those people found to be in close contact will receive an automatic notification along with additional guidance on what to do next, such as to self-isolate for 14 days. If you get tested and receive a negative result, the app will alert others users that they can come out of self-isolation. If the result is positive, those users will need to continue self-isolating.
In practice, you might receive a notification to say you’ve been in close proximity to someone found to have coronavirus, or that you’ve attended a venue where there have been covid cases. You’ll be asked to self-isolate for 14 days.
> QR Codes For Venue Check-In
It’s also possible for individuals to scan QR codes at venues to automatically share their contact details with the venue, which makes tracing easier should someone who visits report infection. Around 160,000 companies have so far downloaded these QR codes for customers to scan.
If you’ve got symptoms, you can use the app to arrange a coronavirus test. When you get the results you can enter them into the app and this can alert others you’ve been in close proximity with. Unfortunately testing is still very limited and many people are reporting an inability to get a test, so being able to have one isn’t guaranteed.
> Neighbourhood Covid-19 Levels
The app can also show you the latest information on infections and risk levels in your area by entering the first part of your home post code.
> Symptom Checker
A symptom checker tool on the app allows you to check your symptoms against possible coronavirus symptoms.
> Countdown Timer
There’s a countdown timer on the app to keep you on top of how long you need to remain in isolation if you’ve been told to self-isolate.
> Further Advice
You can access the latest updates on local restrictions, advice on the virus, details about financial support and other covid-related information.
The Problems With Contract Tracing
Of course with any system there will be potential problems and limitations. This app, along with QR codes, are voluntary. The success of either will hinge on how many choose to use the tools. While only a few people using the app could prove beneficial, for the level of benefit desired in order to help curb the pandemic it would mean a larger proportion of the population will need to download the app, report symptoms and adhere to any guidance should they receive a notification.
There’s also the issue of the technology itself and the need for internet access, but various major UK operators have made allowances for the app and will not charge customers to use it. These include GiffGaff, Virgin Mobile, Sky Mobile, Three, EE, Vodafone and O2.
The app has been designed to be as easy as possible to use, but that doesn’t mean that everyone with a phone will be willing or able to use it. Then there’s the issue of the proportion of the population, albeit the minority, that don’t have a smartphone to begin with.
There’s also been an issue of false positives reported, with Bluetooth signals being affected by nearby objects that result in a miscalculation of distance.
Some people are reporting an inability to put their test results on the app. Many previous diagnostic test results, around 60,000, apparently can’t put input into the app. These include tests in NHS hospitals, via the ONS and via PHE.
Not all phones will be able to use the app. Android phones that don’t have access to downloads at the Google Play store, which includes some Huawei models released last year, won’t be able to use it. It also doesn’t work on the iPhone 6 or earlier iPhone models, like the 5 or 5s.
Is Self-Isolation Mandatory?
The other issue is around the stay at home guidance. In an interview with BBC Breakfast, Mr Hancock stated that self-isolation advice notifications from the app can be taken up voluntarily, unlike the “mandatory self-isolation” you must obey if you’re called by the human contract tracers.
Confusion is caused because the Department of Health had previously said that ignoring the app notification to self-isolate could see users fined £1,000. It has since been said by the government that app notifications can’t be legally enforced. Of course it’s hoped that people will do the right thing, staying at home if they know there’s a reasonable possibility they have the virus.
Steps To Ending The Pandemic
Contract tracing, both human and via the app, is part of other measures designed to track, control and reduce the spread of the virus. Given the increasing infections and fatalities following lockdown, the government have begun imposing local lockdowns and have hinted at another potential national lockdown in future. A search for a vaccine continues, with numerous vaccinations currently going through different stages of testing across the world.
It’s vital to continue with other safety measures during this time, such as thoroughly and regularly washing your hands for at least 30 seconds, wearing a mask when you’re outside of the house and around other people, using anti-bacterial cleaner on regularly touched surfaces, cleaning all items/groceries coming into your home, and so on. Advice in the UK on face masks has changed again to include greater use of these in public areas and hospitality venues. You can find out more about different types of face masks to see what’s best for you & where to get them here.
You can find out more about Test & Trace and how to get a covid-19 test on the NHS website.
FAQs – Commonly Asked Questions Answered
Q. Do I need the app on for it to work?
A. The app is designed to run in the background without using too much battery. It doesn’t need to be open for it to log your location and communicate via Bluetooth with other phones.
Q. Do I need Bluetooth and the internet on?
A. Bluetooth needs to be on when you go out so that it can record where you are and ping off other phones. You’ll need an internet connection to download the app (which is probably better done via home WiFi and not using mobile data) and to pick up notifications as the app continually checks for updated information. No further information on when the internet needs to be on has been provided.
Q. What apps are Scotland & Ireland using?
A. Both Scotland & Ireland have already released their apps. Scotland use Protect Scotland, which was launched September 9th. Ireland use StopCOVID NI, which was launched on 24th July.
Q. Is my data kept private & safe?
A. All contacts are on your phone and don’t get sent to anyone else. If someone managed to break into your phone, all data there is anonymous so as to keep user details private. The NHS and government won’t know your identity via the app. With the venue check-in part of the app, even the venue won’t know your details and you’ll just get a notification of an outbreak at an unnamed venue you’ve attended.
Q. Will it work on my iPhone?
A. The app works on all new iPhones after the 6. It won’t work on iPhone 6 and earlier, including the 5 and 5s. You’ll also need to be running iOS 13.5 or later.
Q. Will it use up a lot of battery?
A. The app uses Bluetooth Low Energy to detect proximity, minimising the impact on your phone’s battery. It should be using less than 5% of your battery.
Q. What personal information do I have to give the app?
A. You’ll be asked to supply your postcode when you download the app but you won’t be asked for an email as you don’t need to make a user account, and you won’t need to provide a home address or telephone number either. The app was designed to collect the bare minimum of personal data, which is all kept on your phone and nowhere else.
Will you be downloading the new contract tracing app? If you’re outside of England, is there a tracing app in your country and how well does it work?
Take care & stay safe everyone.