Government launches new contact-tracing app

A new NHS Covid-19 App instructs users to self-isolate for 14 days if it detects they were nearby someone who has the virus. The app keeps secret who receives a self-isolation alert.

It also has a check-in scanner to alert owners if a venue they have visited is found to be an outbreak hotspot.

Anyone aged 16 and over is being asked to install the app on to their smartphone. The decision to allow those 16 and over to download the app is a change from trials, which were limited to the over-18s.

The move reflects a desire by health chiefs for the software to be used by as many students in further education colleges and universities as possible.

The government had originally intended to release the app months ago. But problems with the initial design and the addition of extra features meant it was only ready for its final public test in August.

Although the app allows users to order a coronavirus test and automatically get the results, the government does not believe it will complicate efforts to meet demand.

How can people access the app?

The app is available for smartphones only – not tablets, smartwatches or other devices.

To get started, go to Android’s Google Play or Apple’s App Store and search for “NHS Covid-19”.

The handsets must have Android 6.0 (released in 2015) or iOS 13.5 (released in May 2020) and Bluetooth 4.0 or higher. That excludes the iPhone 6 and older versions of Apple’s handsets.

And some of the latest Huawei handsets are excluded.

What will contact-tracing alerts say?

The notification will tell the recipient to go into self-isolation for a fortnight – and trigger the start of the app’s countdown clock.

Even if the recipient has no symptoms or a subsequent negative test result, they must stay at home for the duration.

Unlike when a human contact tracer orders someone to self-isolate, the app keeps the subject’s identity a secret.

Those that have not received such an alert, but fill in the app’s symptoms checker and meet the criteria, will be directed to self-isolate for eight days. They will also be directed to an external website to book a test.

Automated contact tracing is designed to complement the work done by humans by helping to identify encounters with strangers – for example, someone standing close to a user while waiting in a queue outside a shop.

When someone anonymously shares a positive Covid-19 test result via the app, a process developed by Apple and Google makes other users’ smartphones check if they had recently detected the infected person’s handset.

But smartphones were not designed for this purpose and the readings involved are not always accurate. This has led to fears of “false positives” – people being instructed to self-isolate who were never at risk.

Barcode check-ins

One of the app’s other major features is a scanner to let it keep track of pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and other places the user has visited.

Hospitality venues in England now face £1,000 fines if they do not display an official Test and Trace poster featuring a QR barcode assigned to them.

So far, the government says more than 160,000 businesses have downloaded a unique code for their property.

The benefit is that if officials later identify a venue as being at the centre of an outbreak, they can update a database which the phones regularly check for a match.

Users can then be told to self-isolate and/or get tested, depending on the circumstances, without having to revealing their identities.

Free data & Other Formats

Other facilities, including postcode-based threat updates and details of the latest guidance, are intended to encourage people to regularly look at the app and change their behaviour.

To encourage adoption, the major mobile networks have agreed not to deduct data used by the app from subscribers’ monthly allowances.

In addition, the app now supports more languages than the test version – adding Turkish, Arabic, Mandarin, Romanian and soon Polish.

And it now allows users to delete individual venue visits from the app’s “digital diary”. This followed feedback from victims of domestic abuse, whose partners often check their phones.

Those told to go into self-isolation because of a contact-tracing match will not be able to challenge the decision.

document published last month had indicated that users would be able to call an NHS 111 operator, who might overrule the command.


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