Contact tracing: New NHS COVID-19 app launches in England and Wales

The new app uses Apple and Google's contact-tracing tech and features a QR check-in system for UK venues.
Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor

The UK National Health Service's (NHS) official COVID-19 contact-tracing app has been launched across England and Wales following months of delays.

Available from today on the Apple App Store and Google Play, the NHS COVID-19 app uses Bluetooth technology to detect whether someone has come into contact with another person who has reported COVID-19 symptoms.

Encounters are recorded by the app so that if someone later reports being COVID-19 positive, other people they have come into close contact to are alerted.

SEE: Guide to Becoming a Digital Transformation Champion (TechRepublic Premium)

These people will then be instructed to self-isolate for 14 days. The app features a countdown clock that will show users how long they must remain at home for and will help them book a free COVID-19 test from the NHS.

A QR code scanner is also included in the new NHS COVID-19 app, which smartphone owners can use to check-into venues. The app will then alert users if someone with COVID-19 symptoms has visited the same venue in recent days.

The new NHS COVID-19 app comes days after the UK government announced new restrictions to try to limit the spread of the disease and a potential second wave.

To ensure it is used by as many people as possible, everyone aged 16 and over in the UK has been encouraged to download and use the app. Meanwhile, new legal requirements mean certain businesses in England will be required by law to display QR codes so that customers using the NHS COVID-19 app can check-in when they visit.

SEE: 'There's no way back after this': Inside the unexpected tech revolution at the NHS

According to the UK government, more than 160,000 businesses are now displaying NHS test and trace codes at their venues.

Matt Hancock, the UK's Health and Social Care Secretary, said: "We are at a tipping point in our efforts to control the spread of this virus. With infection rates rising we must use every tool at our disposal to prevent transmission, including the latest technology.

"Today's launch marks an important step forward in our fight against this invisible killer and I urge everyone who can to download and use the app to protect themselves and their loved ones."

Why has it taken so long?

The road to today's launch of the UK's official contact-tracing app has been rocky. Initial plans for a radically different technology platform – which would have stored contact-tracing interactions on a central database using architecture built by NHSX – were abandoned after trials proved unsuccessful.

NHSX – the technology innovation arm of the UK's National Health Service – eventually ditched its home-grown proposition and went with a system developed by Apple and Google. By this point, several other European countries had launched their own contact-tracing apps.

The new NHS COVID-19 app entered trials in the Isle of Wight and the east London borough of Newham in August.

It uses Apple and Google's Exposure Notification technology, which allows a user's smartphone to exchange a random ID with another handset running the app when they come within close proximity.

These small pieces of anonymized code are kept on the handset for 14 days – the length of time it is thought it takes COVID-19 to run its course – so that contact-tracing events can be recorded accurately.

Upon installing the app, users will be prompted to enter the first half of their postcode, which will allow the NHS to identify and track localized COVID-19 outbreaks and issue warnings and advice to people in the area. For the app to work, it needs to be running in the background on user's smartphones at all times, and Bluetooth must be kept switched on.

SEE: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic  

Mobile operators in the UK have agreed to waive data fees so that in-app activity won't come out of customers' data allowances.

Dido Harding, executive chair of England's NHS Test and Trace Programme, said: "The NHS COVID-19 app enables the majority of people with a smartphone to find out if they are at risk of having caught the virus and need to self-isolate, order a test if they have symptoms, and access the right guidance and advice.

"The features of this app, including QR code check-in at venues, work alongside our traditional contact-tracing service and will help us to reach more people quickly in their communities to prevent further spread of the virus."

After initial scrutiny about how user information will be handled, the UK government has published a privacy notice advising how long data from the NHS COVID-19 app will be kept for. Codes that link users to a test result will be retained for 24 to 48 hours before being deleted, while QR scans from venue check-ins will be kept for 21 days.

Users can request to see any information the app holds about them. Deleting the app will remove all the information held on their phone, including places they've checked into.

Editorial standards