The new NHS contact-tracing app is being trialled in the Isle of Wight. Here is everything you need to know.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB)
Test, track and trace is one strategy the government are rolling out to manage the spread of coronavirus and, eventually, allow us to return to our normal daily lives. The latest step in this programme is the introduction of a tracking and tracing phone app which will let us know when we have been near someone who might be infected with COVID-19.
Why do we need it? What will the app do and how helpful is technology going to be in the fight against COVID-19? We speak to Dr Juliet McGrattan about what you need to know about the new NHS COVID-19 tracing app.
Why do we need a coronavirus tracing app?
As we know, the best way to avoid getting infected with COVID-19 and protecting others from infection is to stay at home. Until there is a vaccine to protect us or a treatment to clear the infection, we will have some degree of risk whenever we go out in public. The problem with COVID-19 is that because we still don’t fully understand exactly how it is transmitted and because it seems that it can be carried and passed on without people having any symptoms, it’s hard to keep ourselves safe. The new tracking app is designed to inform us when we could have been exposed to COVID-19 and in turn when we might pose a risk to others too so that we can take action to prevent the spread of the disease.
What is contact tracing?
Contact tracing is a procedure that has been used in medicine for many years in the field of infectious diseases such as sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. It’s usually done manually, by a person giving the details of who they might have infected with a particular disease. The contact tracer then gets in touch with those people who in turn may be asked to give details of who they may have infected and so on, until a clear ‘family tree’ of infection is gleaned and everyone has had the appropriate testing, advice or treatment. Clearly with many hundreds of thousands of people being infected with COVID-19 in the UK, manual contact tracing can’t be done for everyone (although mammoth efforts have already been made) and when you’re dealing with a disease that may give you very delayed or no symptoms at all, it would be an insurmountable task. So we’re turning to technology for help.
How will the new coronavirus tracing app work?
The new tracer app works through the Bluetooth function on your phone. When you come into close proximity with someone else using the app, your phones will exchange a ‘digital handshake’. This handshake consists of a unique code made up of a selection of numbers. Any codes your phone has received will be stored on the app for 28 days. Essentially it’s creating a contact list of all the phones you have been near to.
When you come into close proximity with someone else using the app, your phones will exchange a ‘digital handshake’.
If you develop any symptoms of coronavirus such as a high temperature or a continuous cough, then you enter this information into the app. The app will work out who you have had significant contact with. It will consider how close you were to someone and for how long and will send a message to all significant contacts during the previous 14 days and advise them of what steps to take; the specifics of this advice are not yet known. You will then be offered testing to confirm whether you actually have coronavirus and once your result is back, your contacts will be sent a further message. If your result is positive and confirms COVID-19 then your contacts will be told to self-isolate and get a test themselves. You may also be contacted by an NHS contact tracing worker by phone.
How will the new tracing app help manage COVID-19?
The idea is that the app will help to:
- Minimise the spread of COVID-19 in the community.
- Ensure that self-isolation starts as early as possible for those that may be infected.
- Protect the most vulnerable by determining who may have been exposed and who might be passing it on.
- Identify UK hotspots by building up a picture of where the infection is most active; you are asked to enter the first part of your postcode when you download the app.
- Allow targeted social distancing and larger resources such as testing kits and PPE to ‘hot spot’ regions.
Has the tracing app been tested yet?
Some countries such as Singapore are already using similar apps and other countries are currently developing their own. Apple and Google are also working on an app which functions in a similar way but doesn’t give any location advice, this means it couldn’t help to determine UK hotspots and wouldn’t provide any direct link to the NHS. The NHS app is currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight. The app has been downloaded more than 55,000 times since it launched there on 5 May. For it to be effective it’s reported that around 60 per cent of the population need to be using it. NHSX chief executive Matthew Gould said the app would be at least two to three weeks away for the rest of the country.
The NHS app is currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight.
Are there any concerns?
Understandably, there are many concerns about privacy when using an app such as this but the government are clear that everything will be anonymous. You will not be able to identify an individual or a specific location from the app. The digital handshake is purely a code and doesn’t include names so no none will know who they met that went on to have symptoms of infection. The app doesn’t use GPS data so it doesn’t track your movements, it is only from your basic postcode information given after download that they can determine the patterns of infection around the country.
What about old phones?
This app won’t work on old phones, only those with a Bluetooth connection. This means that those who don’t have recent smart phones or don’t own a phone at all will be unable to use it. This potentially puts the elderly and people on low income at the most risk. There’s reassurance that because the app works purely through Bluetooth it doesn’t use up data and it runs on a low energy Bluetooth setting to save battery power.
To move forwards and protect ourselves from this virus we need to be resourceful and creative so it will be interesting to see the results and feedback from the app trial and whether harnessing technology will help us overcome COVID-19 and move on.