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NHS Covid-19 app: One million downloads of contact tracer for England and Wales

BBC Technology 24 Sep 2020 02:46

By Leo Kelion & Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology reporters

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More than one million people have downloaded the government's contact-tracing app for England and Wales within its first day of release.

NHS Covid-19 instructs users to self-isolate for 14 days if it detects they were nearby someone who has the virus.

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 it. The government plans to give its own download tally on Monday.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the app "helps us to find more people who are at risk of having the virus" that human contact tracers are unable to find.

"Everybody who downloads the app will be helping to protect themselves, helping to protect their loved ones, helping to protect their community because the more people who download it, the more effective it will be," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The app keeps secret who receives a self-isolation alert.

Mr Hancock told BBC Breakfast: "That self-isolation is voluntary, unlike the mandatory self-isolation if you are called by NHS Test and Trace."

A senior source has since told the BBC that the notification is "advisory" because the authorities cannot legally enforce something that cannot be proved.

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 launch comes as the UK reported 6,178 coronavirus cases on Wednesday, up 1,252 since Tuesday, and 37 deaths.

One tech expert who has tracked the initiative acknowledged the team involved had worked hard to address concerns about privacy and transparency, but said wider problems could still limit its impact.

"If you don't have symptoms, will a push notification saying you were near someone a week ago make you and your family self-isolate and spend days hitting refresh on the testing website, trying to find a test?"

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

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.

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

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

App can direct users to book a test
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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.

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image copyrightDepartment of Health

Barcode check-ins

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.

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

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.

  • officials suggest only about one in 10 people installed the app during a recent trial in the London Borough of Newham, an area picked for its ethnic diversity. When the BBC visited on Wednesday, a reporter could only find one person using it
  • Scotland's app launched about a fortnight ago, and roughly one in five people there have installed it
  • Ireland, one of the leaders in the field, has still only convinced about one in three people to use its app, which was released in July

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.

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