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NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app to launch in England and Wales on 24 September

After a catalogue of delays, missteps and a complete technological volte-face, UK government finally pencils in the date its contact-tracing app will become available nationally

Joe O’Halloran
By
  • Joe O’Halloran, Computer Weekly

After missing its first scheduled launch in mid-May, followed by further delays due to a number of technology issues as other countries forged ahead, the NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app is now set to launch across England and Wales on Thursday 24 September.

Ongoing trials in Newham, on the Isle of Wight and with NHS volunteer responders are said to have shown that the app, when used alongside traditional contact-tracing methods, is highly effective in identifying contact with people who have tested positive for coronavirus.

Following its launch, customers and visitors to businesses in England will be able to use the Covid-19 app to check in on entry with their phone instead of filling out a visitor book or tool specific to a business. This will allow NHS Test and Trace to contact customers and provide public health advice should there be a Covid-19 outbreak associated with a venue they have visited.

The UK government is urging businesses in England and Wales to ensure they have the necessary QR code capabilities in place, visible on entry, so customers who have downloaded the NHS Covid-19 app can use their smartphones to easily check in to premises.

When someone enters a venue and scans an official QR poster, the venue information will be logged on the user’s phone. This information will stay on their phone for 21 days. If during that time a coronavirus outbreak is identified at a location, the venue ID in question will be sent to all devices. The device will check if users have been at that location, and if the app finds a match, users may get an alert with advice on what to do based on the level of risk.

The UK government said it would be supporting businesses and venues to display the QR codes, which can be downloaded via a website to display as posters in premises. Businesses that are already using their own QR system are being encouraged to switch to the NHS Test and Trace QR code. An alternative check-in method must be maintained to collect the contact details of those who don’t have the app, for example a handwritten register.

“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”
Matt Hancock, health secretary

When the app was originally conceived, it was targeted for launch just at the end of the first spike of infections in May 2020. But since details of its construction were first aired by the government in April 2020, its development has been plagued by missteps and political over-promises, and it has missed every scheduled launch date.

In June, the app took a sea-change in its form. It is now being developed by Zühlke using a decentralised data collection model based on Google and Apple’s application programming interface (API) technology, and not the previous, much-criticised, centralised database structure the programme originally intended to adopt, and which had been shunned by developers in other countries.

While the UK app became bogged down after a trial on the Isle of Wight that unearthed a number of operational problems, in particular associated with iPhone detection, other countries – Northern Ireland – steamed ahead with products of their own. Yesterday, Near Form, whose technology is also in the products used either side of the Irish border.

The last major revision of the England and Wales app was revealed in August, with work focusing on a number of key features, including alerts based on postcode, QR check-in at venues, symptom checker and test booking. 

The updated app is designed to log the time and distance a user has spent near any other user with the app on their phone, generating a random ID for each individual’s device, which can be exchanged between devices to monitor the spread of the virus, while rotating frequently to prevent tracking. If necessary, it can alert people if an app user they have been within two metres of for 15 minutes or more later tests positive for Covid-19, and can help them book a free test and quickly get their results.

With coronavirus cases rising in the UK in recent weeks, the UK government has said it is essential that businesses capitalise on the benefits QR codes can bring to protect themselves and their customers.

“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,” said health and social care secretary Matt Hancock.

“QR codes provide an easy and simple way to collect contact details to support the NHS Test and Trace system. It is vital we use the NHS Test and Trace system to reach as many people as possible to prevent outbreaks and stop this virus in its tracks. This function will make it simple and easy so we can keep this virus under control.”

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