Home General Info & Awareness How The New NHS Coronavirus Test & Trace App Works

How The New NHS Coronavirus Test & Trace App Works

by InvisiblyMe
A blue background with digital signs from the NHS website and a phone showing the NHS covid-19 app. Overlaid is the title: Download it today. How the New NHS Test & Trace App Works.

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. 

A blue background with digital signs from the NHS website and a phone showing the NHS covid-19 app.
The new NHS Test & Trace App.

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.

> Testing

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. 

A woman with long brown hair wearing a blue stripe shirt is holding a mobile phone as she stands in front of a large plant by the window.

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. 

A black scroll divider.

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.

Caz  ♥

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Trev Jones September 25, 2020 - 3:05 pm

I did download it yesterday, Caz. I’m in Wales, but I haven’t been anywhere yet to try it out. It did suggest that I was in a mid risk area.

InvisiblyMe September 27, 2020 - 11:43 am

It’s great you’ve downloaded it, Trev. The more the merrier. I’m pretty sceptical about it as a tool to curtail the virus but hopefully with enough people downloading it, it could actually make a difference.x

Sandee September 25, 2020 - 3:30 pm

This is an interesting twist. I’ll check this out.

Have a fabulous day and weekend, Caz. ♥

InvisiblyMe September 27, 2020 - 12:07 pm

I wonder what the next twist in this viral saga will be? I dread to think! Hopefully the apps being used in different countries will help make a difference. Stay safe & have a lovely Sunday, Sandee xx

ashleyleia September 25, 2020 - 3:34 pm

Canada has just started rolling out an app, and it’s not in use in my area yet.

InvisiblyMe September 27, 2020 - 12:56 pm

I hope it gets rolled out across the all of the areas sooner rather than later, hopefully it can help to make a difference in the spread there. xx

Darnell Cureton September 25, 2020 - 7:08 pm

I think its a great idea. My only concern is a false positive. No one wants to self isolate to later find out it was unnecessary. Would more personal information help? Maybe give the users confidence the information is accurate, with the option to add more personal data if they are comfortable to do so.

InvisiblyMe September 27, 2020 - 12:58 pm

An excellent point, Darnell. It really does rely on genuine results, too. You might get idiots putting in that they’ve got the virus just to throw people off and make them self-isolate. For the sake of safety, you have to assume you’ve been somewhere or near someone with the virus and may therefore have it yourself. It’s certainly not a fool-proof plan, but I do hope it can make a difference. xx

Svet Pavlovsky September 25, 2020 - 9:50 pm

Very interesting, Caz! to know more about what is going on in England. I installed the COVID app in Ontario, Canada about a month ago. Here, the app only provides alert if you have been in contact (15 minutes long) with a confirmed COVID case. Of course the other person needs to use the app and voluntary enter his code to trace it back. However, many people here are hesitant about the app and even my close co-workers and friends don’t have it installed. So I am not sure how effective it is, it just transmitting all the time from my phone and I do hope it is safe (no radiation).

InvisiblyMe September 27, 2020 - 3:24 pm

It’s definitely interesting to hear how things are going and what’s being done in other countries. I’m glad Canada has an app and hopefully it’ll get rolled out to more areas there (Ashley, in an above comment, said it’s not available where she is yet). It’s a bit odd that it’s only picking up 15 minute contact. Surely the virus can be caught if you’re very unlucky with just a very short meeting with someone, like while you’re in the supermarket queue. I think there’s a lot of scepticism over this sort of technology, so at least the lower amounts of personal data being taken in the UK app is more appealing. As for how useful it will prove to be for different countries, who knows. Fingers crossed the more people that use it the more helpful it will be. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Svet! xx

Ogden Fahey September 25, 2020 - 9:54 pm

Thanks for the interesting info – hopefully it can help 🙂

InvisiblyMe September 27, 2020 - 3:24 pm

Fingers crossed! Thanks, Ogden. I hope you have a great week ahead.x

Ogden Fahey September 27, 2020 - 6:27 pm

You too Caz! Xx

James Viscosi September 26, 2020 - 9:33 pm

I’ve got a COVID app on my phone, too, after the latest iOS update, but I haven’t looked at it very closely yet. Since we never go anywhere or see anyone these days I doubt it’s going to tell me anything very interesting, but that’s okay. I don’t really want it to!

InvisiblyMe September 27, 2020 - 3:26 pm

I’d feel the same – I wouldn’t want it to tell me anything either! I still go out because I need to do grocery shopping, getting prescriptions, going to the hospital and so on. If you’re shielding it seems pointless, but perhaps for those more regularly going out or who are going to pubs and restaurants it could prove useful. Stay safe and I hope you’re having a good weekend! xx

Holly September 27, 2020 - 5:33 pm

I love how thorough you were with this post, Caz. I’m glad there is an app where you are, but agree with you, it is limited to the choices of users to submit voluntarily. If someone doesn’t report being positive… that presents a challenge. Then again, this is true on or off the app.

We do have an app here in my state as well. Near as I can tell, it looks as if the notification apps are on a state by state basis? I could be wrong about this, though. It wasn’t until a couple of months ago that our app has become available. It doesn’t seem to be very effective, though. My husband’s co-worker did have COVID just this month. Worst of all? They did nothing to protect the employees. Quarantine was not allowed and my husband, along with everyone else who came in direct contact with this man, were expected to still show up every day. (sigh) There have been almost 10 cases of COVID + workers at his job. 1 or 2 passed away. What alarms me is how what they’re doing in failing to protect my husband, and others, is apparently not illegal.

Thank you for sharing this great information, my friend. I hope everyone there will download and engage with this app so that we see a downward trend instead of upward. ????????

InvisiblyMe October 3, 2020 - 7:37 pm

You’re right, those sorts of human errors (including purposeful ones!) will happen on and off an app, so there’s a lot of room here for inaccuracy. I think the success will depend on more people using it, and on having Bluetooth switched on when you go out. I know I personally always have it off so remembering to consciously turn it on would be important. It’s interesting there’s an app where you are too. State by state basis sounds about right, at least from what I’ve heard. It’s similar here with England, Scotland & Wales all having different apps.

I’m so sorry for your husband’s co-worker and everyone else there – that’s awful. Seriously neglectful and pretty damn stupid. Surely not allowing quarantine in that sort of situation should be illegal! If you’ve got a positive result in the place then it should be a law, if it’s not already, that action needs to be taken. Makes me so angry to read stuff like this! I hope your hubby is able to stay as safe as possible. Both of you stay safe. Sending lots of love xx

ckennedy September 28, 2020 - 1:49 pm

Interesting review! In the States we’re not doing nearly enough testing, which is a problem–especially if we get a second wave, which is expected.

InvisiblyMe October 3, 2020 - 7:39 pm

Testing has been a total shambles here, too. Nowhere near the minimum target set by the government, results are taking days, a huge proportion of people can’t get a test at all. Back in March, I wasn’t allowed a test. Now, months into the pandemic where tests should be readily available, they’re still in short supply. The thought of things getting worse is a big worry, isn’t it? I hope testing can improve over there soon. Stay safe lovely xx

Gemma October 2, 2020 - 6:44 pm

Thanks for sharing your comprehensive and easy to understand guide on the app Caz. It has really clarified exactly how it works. I know there may be a few issues with it, but I really hope it proves effective and helps us to beat coronavirus.

Gemma x

InvisiblyMe October 3, 2020 - 7:41 pm

I guess teething problems were to be expected but after the ridiculous shambles the first app was – not to mention how much money has been wasted – I think people were hoping for better. Fingers crossed more people continue to use it to it can prove valuable in the long term. I’m really glad this post helped to explain and clarify things. It’s all getting a bit confusing now where the pandemic is concerned, isn’t it? Thanks for the great comment – stay safe xx

englishwithkirsty October 8, 2020 - 5:00 pm

I downloaded the app and I was pleased to see that it was also accessible for those of us who use screenreaders. Sometimes this is an afterthought, or something that isn’t considered in new projects, but I was pleased that I could use it independently and everything had been labelled properly.


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