Contact tracing: England's new NHS Test and Trace app finally sees the light of day

The new NHS contact-tracing app has entered trials on the Isle of Wight, this time based on technology from Apple and Google.
Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor

A new version of England's COVID-19 contact-tracing app, this time based on technology from Apple and Google, has entered trials.

The UK government yesterday announced that the long-suffering Test and Trace app – which has been beset by delays and a significant technical about-face – will be tested once again on the Isle of Wight. NHS Volunteer Responders across England will also be involved in the trial phase, while residents in the east London borough of Newham will be able to take part from next week.

Dido Harding, executive chair of the NHS Test and Trace Programme, said: "It's really important that we make it as easy as possible for everyone to engage with NHS Test and Trace.

"By launching an app that supports our integrated, localised approach to NHS Test and Trace, anyone with a smartphone will be able to find out if they are at risk of having caught the virus, quickly and easily order a test, and access the right guidance and advice."

SEE: Contact-tracing apps: Why the NHS said no to Apple and Google's plan

NHSX, the NHS innovation unit that look the lead on England's contact-tracing app efforts, has had a tough time of getting an effective solution off the ground. In the meantime, other countries – including Germany, France and, most recently, Ireland – have all got their own contact-tracing apps up and running.

NHSX had initially committed to undertaking the design of the app alone, proposing a home-grown system that would see data collected through the app and processed through a central database, where contact matches would be made if a person was to report symptoms. It argued its approach was more secure and suggested it would be quicker to develop its own tech than to wait around for Apple and Google to release their own proposal.

However, development hit significant technical hurdles, with first-round trials on the Isle of Wight suggesting that NHSX's app struggled to detect other smartphones – a key feature for any app-based contact-tracing system.

The revamped app is based on an API developed by Google and Apple, which triggers warnings automatically on users' phones based on proximity. The system generates a random ID for an individual's device, which can be exchanged between devices to monitor the spread of the virus while rotating frequently to prevent tracking. When someone reports symptoms through the app, it will detect other app users that the person has been in "significant" contact with over the past few days, including anyone they might have sat or stood close to on public transport.

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The app will alert these contacts and provide instructions for booking a COVID-19 test through the NHS. It will advise users to self-isolate if necessary and display a timer showing how long they have to remain quarantined for.

Scientists from the Alan Turing Institute and Oxford University also contributed to NHSX's new and – hopefully – improved app. It boasts additional features as part of NHS England's wider Test and Trace efforts, including symptom-checking and a QR check-in system that will alert users if they visit a venue where someone else later tests positive for COVID-19. It will also advise users on the coronavirus risk in their local area, based on their postcode.

"The app is a great step forward and will complement all of the work we are doing with local areas across the country to reach more people in their communities and work towards our vision of helping more people get back to the most normal life possible at the lowest risk," said Harding.

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