COVID-19

NHS Contact Tracing App due to launch within weeks

NHS says public's data is safe in hands of the health services

Last updated:

The UK Government has announced the infrastructure for a contract tracing app has been put in place, and has been undergoing testing with a view to rolling it out on a large scale “within weeks”.

The app automates the laborious process of contact tracing – with the goal of reducing transmission of the virus by alerting people who may have been exposed so they can take action to protect themselves, the people they care about and the NHS.

NHSX Chief Executive, Matthew Gould said:

The app will give the public a simple way to make a difference and to help keep themselves and their families safe. The technology is based on research evidence developed by epidemiologists, mathematical modellers and ethicists at Oxford University’s Nuffield Departments of Medicine and Population Health. Once you install the app, it will start logging the distance between your phone and other phones nearby that also have the app installed using Bluetooth Low Energy.

This anonymous log of how close you are to others will be stored securely on your phone. If you become unwell with symptoms of COVID-19, you can choose to allow the app to inform the NHS which, subject to sophisticated risk analysis, will trigger an anonymous alert to those other app users with whom you came into significant contact over the previous few days. 

The app will advise you what action to take if you have been close to someone who has become symptomatic – including advising you to self-isolate if necessary. The exact advice on what you should do will depend on the evolving context and approach.  It will be based on the science, and will be approved by the Chief Medical Officer. Scientists and doctors will continuously support the fine-tuning of the app.

In future releases of the app, people will be able to choose to provide the NHS with extra information about themselves to help identify hotspots and trends.

When it comes to data privacy Gould said:

The data will only ever be used for NHS care, management, evaluation and research. You will always be able to delete the app and all associated data whenever you want. We will always comply with the law around the use of your data, including the Data Protection Act and will explain how we intend to use it. We will be totally open and transparent about your choices in the app and what they mean. If we make any changes to how the app works over time, we will explain in plain English why those changes were made and what they mean for you. Your privacy is crucial to the NHS, and so while these are unusual times, we are acutely aware of our obligations to you. Just as the NHS strives at all times to keep your health records confidential, so it will keep the app data secure. Patient confidentiality is built in to the NHS. It is one of our key values. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the contact tracing operation would be functioning in a “matter of weeks”, and said both mass testing and contact tracing are “crucial to holding down the rate and level of transmission of the disease”.

Regarding people trusting and having confidence in using the app, an ICO spokesperson said:

“People must have trust and confidence in the way personal data is used to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The ICO also recognises the vital role that data can play in tracking the pandemic and the need to act urgently. We have been working with NHSX to help them ensure a high level of transparency and governance. We will continue to offer that support during the life of the app as it is developed, rolled out and when it is no longer needed.”

Contract Tracing App

A contact tracing app is designed to let people know if they have been in close contact with someone who later tests positive for Covid-19.

It is being billed as a tool that could help pinpoint exactly who needs to be in quarantine and who doesn’t, making it a key to easing up social distancing measures. 

Users who download the app to their phone can voluntarily opt-in to record details of their symptoms when they start to feel unwell. 

A yellow warning notification will then be sent to others who have the app and have been in close contact with the unwell person. The app keeps a trace of others who have been in close contact through Bluetooth signals.

Apple and Google

Apple and Google are collaborating on technology that could allow smartphones to track every other device they have come into contact with in the last two weeks using Bluetooth signals.

Records of contacts will be stored on phones and if somebody is later diagnosed with the virus, they could then send their list to a central database, which would then alert everyone who has come into contact with them.

According to both companies the records will not be linked to people’s names but use anonymous IDs linked to a device, so phone owners will not know who might have passed on the virus.

Apple and Google are building the technology into their iOS and Android operating systems in two steps. In mid-May, they plan to add the ability for iPhones and Android phones to wirelessly exchange anonymous information via apps run by public health authorities. In coming months, they will integrate the technology directly into their operating systems to reach more people.

Google said that the tools would be added to Android via a download in the Google Play store. Apple will offer it via an iOS software update. Apple said the goal is to make it compatible with as many iPhones as possible, including older models.

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