After months of delays and millions of pounds spent on a previous app that was pulled shortly after testing in the Isle of Wight, the NHS has finally launched its official Covid-19 app in England and Wales.
Called the NHS Covid-19, the app will ask users who have been near someone with a positive coronavirus test result to self-isolate for two weeks – although it won’t be a legal requirement.
It will also allow users to check-in to venues by scanning a QR code on their phones and warn them of the risk in certain areas. Anyone aged 16 and over is being asked to install the app on to their smartphone (initial trials were limited to over 18s only).
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC the app “helps us to find more people who are at risk of having the virus” that human contact tracers are unable to find. “Everybody who downloads the app will be helping to protect themselves, helping to protect their loved ones, helping to protect their community because the more people who download it, the more effective it will be,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
However, importantly the app keeps secret who receives a self-isolation alert so it is up to the individual to take the appropriate action, Mr Hancock told BBC Breakfast: “That self-isolation is voluntary, unlike the mandatory self-isolation if you are called by NHS Test and Trace.
Earlier, the Department of Health had said that users must obey the command and would, in theory, be liable for fines of £1,000 or more if they did not, while acknowledging it had no way to check. However, a senior source has since told the BBC that the notification is “advisory” because the authorities cannot legally enforce something that cannot be proved.
Available for smartphones only – not tablets, smartwatches or other devices – handsets must have Android 6.0 (released in 2015) or iOS 13.5 (released in May 2020) and Bluetooth 4.0 or higher. That excludes the iPhone 6 and older versions of Apple’s handsets.
The launch comes as the UK reported 6,178 coronavirus cases on Wednesday, up 1,252 since Tuesday, and 37 deaths.
The government had originally intended to release the app months ago. But problems with the initial design and the addition of extra features meant it was only ready for its final public test in August.
One tech expert who has tracked the initiative acknowledged the team involved had worked hard to address concerns about privacy and transparency, but said wider problems could still limit its impact. “Not only is the app late to launch, but it will be hindered by the delays in the testing system,” Rachel Coldicutt told the BBC.
“If you don’t have symptoms, will a push notification saying you were near someone a week ago make you and your family self-isolate and spend days hitting refresh on the testing website, trying to find a test?”
Take-up of the NHS Covid contact-tracing app – which was once touted as key to controlling the pandemic – could be as low as 10% in some places, government sources believe. International examples show take-up rates of similar apps at between 10% and 30%, a far cry from the NHS app target in April of 80% of smartphone users.