The beleaguered NHS Covid-19 contact tracing app will finally launch in England and Wales on September 24, the Department of Health has confirmed.
Officials have repeatedly delayed the rollout of the smartphone software since it was first expected in May but trials on the Isle of Wight failed.
The app will add to the NHS Test & Trace service which aims to track down people who have been close to those infected with the coronavirus.
It will use Bluetooth to keep an anonymous log of everyone each user has been close to, and alert them if one of them tests positive for Covid-19.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said today: ‘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.’
The announcement comes after Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, yesterday launched the ‘Protect Scotland’ app north of the border.
Officials abandoned the NHS’s attempt at making its own app in June when they realised it didn’t work on iPhones (Pictured: The app in development stages)
England’s beleaguered app, of which the first version had to be scrapped in June after a string of failures, has now been recreated using technology made by Google and Apple – bringing it in line with apps made in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Bluetooth technology will keep a record of which phones spend 15 minutes within 2metres (6’7′) of one another and then alert people if they have been near someone who later tests positive for Covid-19.
Users will also have an ‘isolation companion’ which has countdown timer if someone has to self-isolate, and will be able to ‘check in’ to places such as pubs and restaurants using QR codes.
They will also be shown what the risk level is in their local area based on the first half of their postcode, with places being categorised as low, medium or high risk.
HOW IS APPLE AND GOOGLE’S TECHNOLOGY DIFFERENT TO THE FAILED NHS PROJECT?
It is not clear why the NHS app was so much worse at using Bluetooth to detect other phones than the Apple/Google technology is.
Officials have not explained exactly why or how the new system is better at measuring the distance between two phones, but Apple and Google’s own software appears to work significantly better when the phone’s screen is locked.
The companies make the phone operating systems themselves so are better able to fit the Bluetooth software around that, whereas the NHS was unable to make a program that could prevent the app going into sleep mode.
The main difference between the two apps is the way they store data.
Both keep a log of who someone has come into close contact with – but the NHS’s app would have kept information in a centralised database, while the Google/Apple app is de-centralised.
NHS app: Lists on NHS servers
The NHSX app would create an alert every time two app users came within Bluetooth range of one another and log this in the user’s phone.
Each person would essentially build up a list of everyone they have been in ‘contact’ with. This would be anonymised so the lists were actually just be numbers or codes, not lists of names or addresses.
If someone was diagnosed with the coronavirus all the app users they got close to during the time that they were considered infectious would receive an alert telling them they have been put at risk of COVID-19 – but it wouldn’t name the person who was diagnosed.
NHSX insisted it would have deleted people’s data when they get rid of the app, but not data uploaded to the NHS server if they or a contact tested positive.
Apple/Google: Contained on phones
In Apple and Google’s de-centralised approach, meanwhile, the server and list element of this process is removed and the entire log is contained in someone’s phone.
That app works by exchanging a digital ‘token’ with every phone someone comes within Bluetooth range of over a fixed period.
If one person develops symptoms of the coronavirus or tests positive, they will be able to enter this information into the app.
The phone will then send out a notification to all the devices they have exchanged tokens with during the infection window, to make people aware they may have been exposed to COVID-19.
The server database will not be necessary because each phone will keep an individual log of the bluetooth profiles someone has come close to. These will then be linked anonymously to people’s NHS apps and alerts can be pushed through that even after the person is out of bluetooth range.
People can delete their data from this app at any time.
The app will rely totally on members of the public co-operating, volunteering to let it track their connections and following the instructions it gives them on getting tested and self-isolating.
The app is far from perfect, though, and the Department of Health has admitted that around half of people who are warned they have been near an infected person will actually not have been within the 2m for 15 minutes danger window.
And three out of 10 people who were put at risk – 31 per cent – won’t receive a notification at all. In trials it had a 69 per cent accuracy rate at detecting people who had been at risk, and it was 55 per cent accurate at detecting people who had not.
The newest version of the app is being launched after the first attempt was abandoned in June because it did not work on Android smartphones.
The NHS’s app — which was originally promised for mid-May and the NHS spent months developing — was unable to spot 25 per cent of nearby Android users and a staggering 96 per cent of iPhones in the Isle of Wight trial.
This was because the Bluetooth system developed by the NHS effectively went into ‘sleep mode’ when the phone screens were locked and developers couldn’t fix the glitch.
Different Bluetooth technology made by the phone manufacturers Apple and Google themselves has turned out to be significantly better at detecting other phones.
Officials said the app software now reliably detects 99.3 per cent of nearby app users, regardless of what type of phone they have.
And it will use, on average, two to three per cent of a phone’s battery life each day, officials say.
Another major difference between the two is that Apple and Google’s technology stores the anonymously log of someone’s contacts entirely in the phone – it is never shared with anyone else and can be deleted at any time – whereas the NHS’s worked on a system which meant it had to be sent to a centralised database.
Officials have changed this to squash concerns about privacy, now insisting the app ‘tracks the virus, not people’.
In another improvement to the privacy afforded by the app, it will have a toggle switch for people to turn the contact tracing on or off without uninstalling the app.
People can choose at any time to make the app stop recording connections to other phones.
And the app will now not send any information to the NHS or the Government – people will only be given advice to self-isolate if they are at risk, or advised to get a test if they have symptoms.
People will have to report a positive test themselves in order to alert people they may have put at risk.
Once hailed as a vital part of the contact tracing system, the app is now an addition to the human system, officials say.
Simon Thompson, managing director of England and Wales’ app, said: ‘My team have worked tirelessly to develop the new NHS Covid-19 app and we are incredibly grateful to all residents of the Isle of Wight, London Borough of Newham, NHS Volunteer Responders and the team that went before us; the learnings and insight have made the app what it is today.
‘We are now giving businesses the time to prepare their venues ahead of the app becoming available across England and Wales. We are working closely to engage, educate and inform them about how the App works and how they can play their part.
‘The QR system is a free, easy and privacy preserving way to check-in customers to venues, and we encourage all businesses to get involved and download and display the official NHS QR code posters.’
Newham was chosen for the mainland trial because it is such a diverse and busy area, the Government said.
The London borough has high levels of deprivation and is extremely diverse – white British people make up only 17 per cent of the population and there is no ethnic majority.
It is also very densely populated, home to around 352,000 people, and therefore a ideal for testing the app in a city environment where the risk of infection is higher.
People who use the app will be asked to put in the first half of their postcode so they can be given the risk level for their local area, which will be low, medium or high.
This section will then have links to more information about specific rules if that area has a stricter lockdown than other parts of the country.
Other features include an isolation timer which will count down day-by-day how long people must stay at home for if they have – or might have – coronavirus.
And people will be able to check in to places they visit using a QR code scanner which will keep of log of where they have been in case they are approached by contact tracers.
It is hoped this will help eliminate problems of people not remembering where they have been or where they may have put strangers at risk and have no way of contacting them.
The system will be based on venue owners and event organisers ordering and printing their own QR codes online for people to scan when they arrive.
England and Wales will be the last places in the UK to have their own contact tracing app, after Scotland launched its version yesterday and Northern Ireland’s went live on August 6.
Scotland’s app uses the Apple and Google software in the same way as Northern Ireland’s does.
It was able to come faster because the Department of Health in England spent time trying to merge the software with elements of its own earlier app that failed.
Scotland decided to cut ties with NHSX, the digital arm of the health service, when its app tanked in June because it didn’t work on iPhones.