William Eichler 24 September 2020

NHS COVID-19 app launched

People across England and Wales are being urged to download the NHS COVID-19 app to help control the spread of coronavirus.

The app, which is available to those aged 16 and over in multiple languages, forms a central part of the NHS Test and Trace service in England and the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect programme.

The contact tracing element of the app works by using low-energy Bluetooth to log the amount of time you spend near other app users, and the distance between you, so it can alert you if someone you have been close to later tests positive for COVID-19.

The app will advise you to self-isolate if you have been in close contact with a confirmed case. It will also enable you to check symptoms, book a free test if needed and get your test results.

The app uses the latest in data security technology to protect privacy, according to the Government.

The system generates a random ID for an individual’s device, which can be exchanged between devices via Bluetooth. These unique random IDs regenerate frequently to add an extra layer of security and preserve anonymity.

The app does not hold personal information such as your name, address or date of birth, and only requires the first half of your postcode to ensure local outbreaks can be managed. No personal data is shared with the Government or the NHS.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘We are at a tipping point in our efforts to control the spread of this virus. With infection rates rising we must use every tool at our disposal to prevent transmission, including the latest technology.

‘We have worked extensively with tech companies, international partners, and privacy and medical experts – and learned from the trials – to develop an app that is secure, simple to use and will help keep our country safe.

‘Today’s launch marks an important step forward in our fight against this invisible killer and I urge everyone who can to download and use the app to protect themselves and their loved ones.’

The UK’s major mobile network operators, including Vodafone, Three, EE and O2, Sky and Virgin, have confirmed that all in-app activity will not come out of customers’ data allowance.

The think tank Health Foundation has raised concerns about the effectiveness of the app and has criticised the Government for not publishing the results of its pilot scheme.

Commenting on the app’s launch, Josh Keith, senior fellow at the Health Foundation, said: 'With a virus that is transmitted as quickly as COVID-19, the automated contact tracing feature of the new NHS app could prove invaluable in reducing its spread. But while evidence from recent pilots of this technology remains unpublished, major questions about its effectiveness are left unanswered, including how it will protect those communities who are most vulnerable to the virus yet may be among the least likely to use the app.

‘The effectiveness of the app will be dependent on the public downloading it and changing their behaviour based on its advice. By not sharing the findings of the pilots, government has missed a vital opportunity to build people’s confidence in the new technology. It is now essential that how the public uses and responds to the app is continuously evaluated to ensure it is working effectively and any improvements are identified.

‘It is also important to recognise the app will not work in isolation - it is reliant on people being able to readily access tests when they need to. But the test and trace system faces considerable ongoing challenges. As we approach winter it is vital that government delivers the ‘world-beating’ system the Prime Minister promised.’

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