Contact tracing: England’s app finally gets a launch date

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Coronavirus app: Contact-tracing app hopes to tackle COVID-19 spread

The NHS’s long-awaited COVID-19 app will launch in England and Wales in less than two weeks, the government has announced.

After almost a month of trials, the technology will be released nationally on 24 September. The new launch date comes months after the launch originally anticipated by the health service, which first predicted that the app would be ready by the end of last May.

Designed to work alongside manual contact-tracing services, the NHS’s COVID-19 app will use Bluetooth signals to log the time and distance a user has spent near to anyone, even if they don’t know them, so that it can alert them if that person later tests positive for the virus.

Based on a privacy-preserving API developed by Apple and Google, the technology prevents tracking by regularly generating random IDs for an individual’s device, which can be exchanged between phones to trigger Bluetooth “handshakes” without revealing users’ identity or personal data.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “We need to use every tool at our disposal to control the spread of the virus including cutting-edge technology. The launch of the app later this month across England and Wales is a defining moment and will aid our ability to contain the virus at a critical time.”

Alongside contact-tracing, the NHS’s app also provides a “check-in” feature to make it easier for businesses to record the contact details of customers and staff.

Business venues can download an official QR code to present to visitors. When entering a venue, customers will be invited to scan the code, which will register the location’s details on the user’s phone for 21 days. If during that time, a coronavirus outbreak occurs on the business’s premises, the venue ID will be sent to all the devices. If a match is found with a device, a warning will be issued to the user with advice on what to do next.

Recording visitors’ contact details is now a legal requirement for venues like pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and cinemas. The government has encouraged businesses using their own QR codes to switch to the NHS app’s system.

“QR codes provide an easy and simple way to collect contact details to support the NHS Test and Trace system,” said Hancock. “Hospitality businesses can now download posters for their premises ahead of the launch of the NHS Covid-19 app. This will allow the public to seamlessly check-in to venues using the app when it launches.”

For the past month, the NHS’s COVID-19 app has been in on-going trials on the Isle of Wight and in the London borough of Newham, but no detailed results have been released so far. The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that the pilot showed the app is “highly effective” when used alongside traditional contact tracing.

The technology has been in the works since the start of April. A first version of the app was trialed on the Isle of Wight in early May, based on a model developed by the digital branch of the NHS, NHSX, in an attempt to build a tool that followed a different approach to the one put forward by Google and Apple.

Despite contradictory public statements, it emerged after a few weeks that the app was running into technical hurdles. The government eventually axed the plans for its home-grown app, and admitted that the tech giants’ API would provide a more suitable basis for the technology.

The NHS’s app 2.0 finally seems to be seeing the light of day, therefore, albeit with months of delay. Other parts of the UK have already released their own technologies: Northern Ireland launched the StopCOVID NI app at the end of July, and Scotland’s app was released this week. Both apps are built on Google and Apple’s API.

Residents in England and Wales, therefore, will effectively be the last in the UK to be able to download a contact-tracing app.

The COVID-19 app launch is nevertheless timely, as new cases rapidly increase in the country, with almost 3,000 infections registered a day.

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