Q: What is the NHS contact tracing app?

A: The app is an application to be downloaded onto smartphones. It uses Bluetooth technology to check when users come into contact with other people who have the app on their phones. It is designed to send you an alert if you have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 symptoms or has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The alert may advise you to self-isolate for 14 days and get a coronavirus test if you are at risk of having been infected. The app is currently being tested.

 

Q: Hasn’t the app been withdrawn?

A: The first app developed by the NHS was withdrawn in June after trials. This is a replacement app, developed with Google and Apple, which should avoid the problems associated with the first app. The first app failed to pick up many contacts between people, because of limitations that meant iPhones did not report contacts with each other.

 

Q: Who can use the new app?

A: At present, it is only available on the Isle of Wight (where the first app was tested), in the London Borough of Newham, and to NHS volunteer responders. The app will be available on the Google and Apple stores, but people cannot activate it for use without a code. Only those invited to take part in testing the app will be sent a code.

 

Q: What is the difference between this app and the first app?

A: The first app was developed by the NHS independently of Google and Apple, and stored users’ data centrally. Google and Apple did not want a centralised data storing app. The new app does not collect and centralise data, and the two technology firms have worked with the NHS to create the new app.

The new app generates a random ID for an individual’s device, which can be exchanged between devices. It does not collect personal information such as email addresses or names. To prevent the system from tracking devices, the ID numbers will be rotated frequently, while allowing the devices to communicate with each other. If people get an alert to say they have been in contact with a person who has logged symptoms or a positive test, they will not know who that person is.

 

The new app will also have:

  • an alert system to inform people of the level of risk in their local area (based on the first part of their postcode)
  • a QR code scanner to be used at venues such as pubs and restaurants, so people can check if anyone at that venue on the same date later tests positive
  • a symptom checker which will allow people to book a test
  • a countdown display to tell people how long they need to self-isolate

 

Q: Will the app take over from NHS Test and Trace?

A: No. The app, if successful, will be rolled out in addition to the current Test and Trace system.

Baroness Harding, who runs the Test and Trace service, said: ‘There is no silver bullet when it comes to tackling coronavirus. The app is a great step forward and will complement all of the work we are doing with local areas across the country to reach more people in their communities and work towards our vision of helping more people get back to the most normal life possible at the lowest risk.’

 

Q: How accurate is the app?

A: The app is supposed to detect when two people are within 2 metres of each other for 15 minutes or more. However, reports say the distancing technology may not be that sensitive. BBC News reports that in tests, one third of contacts within 2 metres were missed while almost half of the contacts were actually further apart than 2 metres. That raises the prospect that people might be told to self-isolate unnecessarily. Work is continuing to try to improve the accuracy of the app.

 

Q: When will the app be rolled out nationwide?

A: The government has not committed to a timescale for making the app more widely available.

 

Analysis by EIU Healthcare, supported by Reckitt Benckiser

 

Reading list

  1. Test and Trace service reaches more than 250,000 people since launch. Press release from Department of Health and Social Care, 13 August 2020. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/test-and-trace-service-reaches-more-than-250-000-people-since-launch (Accessed 18 August).
  2. Next phase of NHS coronavirus (COVID-19) app announced. Press release from the Department of Health and Social Care, 18 June 2020. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/next-phase-of-nhs-coronavirus-covid-19-app-announced (Accessed 18 August 2020).
  3. Coronavirus: England’s contact tracing app trial gets underway. BBC News, 13 August. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-53765240 (Accessed 18 August 2020).