NHS Covid-19 app: How England and Wales' contact-tracing service works

BBC Technology 23 Sep 2020 11:11

By Leo Kelion and Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology reporters

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NHS Covid-19 app

England and Wales' Covid-19 app has now launched, joining earlier efforts by Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Apple and Google's automated contact-tracing technology is being used to tell people to self-isolate if their phone detects they were near someone later determined to have the virus.

Other features are also included, and health chiefs say the primary goal is to change people's behaviour to make them less likely to catch or transmit the coronavirus.

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.

To check what iOS system you have, go into Settings, then tap on General, and click on About. To upgrade click on Software Update.

Some of the latest Huawei handsets will not run the app.

What does the app do beyond contact tracing?

Location check-in
image copyrightDepartment of Health

How will it send contact-tracing alerts?

The measurements are not always accurate - and work continues to improve them - but the logs are used to create a cumulative points score for the set of interactions between two people over the course of a day.

Contact-tracing alerts

Further changes may be made over time.

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

And the authorities cannot identify either party, although they can track how many people have been told to self-isolate.

Can users be fined if they ignore a self-isolate alert?

Alert levels graphic

Only if they subsequently get in contact - for example to arrange a financial support payment - will their name be registered.

Restaurants, bars and other leisure facilities should display an authorised QR barcode on a poster or digital sign, which the app can scan.

The venue will then be added to the app's "digital diary" of places the user has visited.

If officials later judge the location to be the centre of an outbreak, they can trigger an alert to users who were there.

How will the postcode facility work?

When a smartphone owner first uses the app, they are given the option of typing in the first part of their postcode - "M23", for example.

The user is then given a risk-level for their neighbourhood, at the top of the app's home screen, and can be sent an alert if it changes.

Example of an app alert

Users can report symptoms - and when they started - at any time.

Booking a test involves using an external website, which asks for the user's name and address.

But these personal details are not shared back to the app.

Will the app drain the battery and data allowance?

But if the phone is set to use a low-power mode, owners should go into their settings to exclude the app so it can continue contact tracing at all times.

What if users travel to Scotland or Northern Ireland, which have their own apps?

So when users cross the border, they need to open the local app and turn on contact tracing within it.

Google Play contact app installation image

What if users work with PPE or behind a perspex screen?

To avoid people being told to self-isolate when they were protected, or phones logging each other while in lockers, there is an option to temporarily turn off contact tracing, at the bottom of the home screen.

While the human and automated contact-tracing systems are being deliberately kept separate, they should complement each other.

Likewise, if you were at a pub where a contagious user was sitting but not using the app, you might still receive an alert via the check-in service.

According to modelling done by the University of Oxford, the app can significantly reduce deaths and hospital admissions if at least 15% of the population use it.

And so far, they have been offered when the levels of infection have been relatively low, meaning the chance of any user receiving an alert has been slim.

As Covid-19 resurges that may change.

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