COVID-19: U.K. rolls out new smartphone app to track and trace

Published - September 24, 2020 07:17 am IST - London

A new smartphone app to boost the U.K.’s track-and-trace system to help control coronavirus transmissions will be rolled out across England and Wales on Thursday.

The government said businesses will be required by law to display the official National Health Service (NHS) quick response (QR) code posters so that people can check-in at different premises with the new app.

Features of the app include contact-tracing using Bluetooth, risk alerts based on postcode district, QR check-in at venues, symptom checker and test bookings. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) also sought to reassure the public that user privacy and data security lie at the heart of the app rollout.

“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,” U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.

“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 minister said, reiterating his previous warning of the U.K. being at a “tipping point” in its efforts to control the spread of this virus with infection rates rising.

The new app will be available to those aged 16 years and above in multiple languages, including Indian languages such as Punjabi, Gujarati and Bengali.

The contact-tracing element of the app works by using low-energy Bluetooth to log the amount of time a person spends near other app users and the distance between them, so it can alert users if someone they have been close to later tests positive for COVID-19 — even if they do not know each other.

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

“We want to make it as easy as possible for everyone to engage with England’s NHS Test and Trace service,” said Dido Harding, Executive Chair of England’s NHS Test and Trace Programme.

“The NHS COVID-19 app enables the majority of people with a smartphone to find out if they are at risk of having caught the virus and need to self-isolate, order a test if they have symptoms and access the right guidance and advice,” she said.

The DHSC said the NHS Test and Trace team behind the app has worked closely with major tech companies, including Google and Apple, scientists within the Alan Turing Institute and Oxford University, Zuhlke Engineering, medical experts, privacy groups, at-risk communities and teams in countries across the world using similar apps — such as Germany — to develop an app that is “safe, simple and secure“.

It stressed that the app does not hold personal information and no personal data is shared with the government or the NHS.

In a joint statement, Apple and Google said: “We built the exposure notifications system to enable public health authorities in their efforts to develop apps to help reduce the spread of the virus while ensuring that people can trust the privacy-preserving design.

“We are committed to supporting the government’s effort to launch an app based on this technology.”

The app has been through “rigorous” U.K. trials in the Isle of Wight, Newham borough of London and among NHS volunteer responders, which are claimed to have been successful.

Simon Thompson, Managing Director of the NHS COVID-19 app, described it as so much more than just a contact-tracing app, with a range of features to alert users to the risk of coronavirus.

“The more people use it, the better it works. We are confident that every person who downloads the app will be helping to protect themselves and their loved ones,” he said.

The DHSC also confirmed that the mobile phone industry has committed to supporting the new app with the country’s major operators — Vodafone, Three, EE and O2, Sky and Virgin — “zero-rating” data charges for all in-app activity. This means people will not be charged for data when using the in-app functions or if they are directed out of the app to information on NHS websites.

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