NHS contact tracing app to launch this month amid increasing test concerns

App launch announced as NHS Providers accuses government of not “being as open” with testing capacity problems
Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

The NHS contact-tracing app is finally to launch across England and Wales later this month.

The government has announced that the NHS Covid-19 app will be made available for all citizens to download from Apple and Android app stores on 24 September.  The technology has spent the last month been in a public testing phase in which residents of the Isle of Wight and the London borough of Newham have been invited to trial the software.

Ahead of the national launch date, businesses and community facilities are encouraged to make sure they print and display QR code posters at all entry points of their venues. Visitors can then use their phone to scan this code to ‘check in’ to the location.

App users will be notified if the Bluetooth technology on their phone detects that they may have come into close contact – which is defined as at least 15 minutes at a distance of two metres or less – with someone that later tested positive for coronavirus. These updates may contain “advice on what to do based on the level of risk”.

Details of neither individuals nor locations will be provided in these notifications. Information on venues visited will be stored on users’ phones for 21 days, and thereafter deleted.

All other data will be stored solely on individual phones – and not by government or businesses.

The NHS website offers an online service where businesses and public sector entities can create and download printable QR code posters to display at their venues. Pubs, restaurants, cinemas, hairdressers, beauty salons, gyms, leisure centres, sports facilities, and libraries are all urged to do so.

Businesses that have already implemented their own QR code system for gathering customer details are advised to switch to the NHS system. In cases where automated check-in is not possible, visitor details must still be taken manually, and firms must maintain a means of doing so.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: “We need to use every tool at our disposal to control the spread of the virus including cutting-edge technology. The launch of the app later this month across England and Wales is a defining moment and will aid our ability to contain the virus at a critical time. QR codes provide an easy and simple way to collect contact details to support the NHS Test and Trace system.”

Delayed launch

The launch of the app is four months later than originally intended, after the original version developed by NHSX at a cost of over £12m was scrapped. The government had hoped to create a program through which it could gather and collate data to help inform public-health policy.

But trials found that the technology hardly worked at all on iPhones, and only three-quarters of the time on Android devices.

The app that will be launched shortly is based on a platform jointly developed by Apple and Google and used as the basis for similar apps in a number of other countries. Unlike the NHSX-developed software, it uses a decentralised model in which no information is stored centrally – only on users’ devices.

A number of countries – including Italy, Germany and Denmark – also began developing their own centralised apps, before abandoning them and implementing a program based on the Apple-Google system.

Even among this company, the UK represents a significant laggard; 18 June marked both the day that the UK announced it was to scrap its original app and the day that a decentralised app was made available across Denmark. Germany had launched its contact-tracing app two days prior, having abandoned attempts to build its own technology back in April.

A contact-tracing app was launched across Scotland last week and over 600,000 people have already downloaded it. This represents more than one in ten of the country’s 5.5 million population.

Writing on Twitter, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “There's a new way to help fight Covid in Scotland. 'Protect Scotland' – our confidential contact tracing app – will anonymously notify app users you've been in close contact with, should you test positive. Please download, and let's all protect Scotland."

Testing concerns

The launch of the app comes after NHS leaders warned ongoing coronavirus testing capacity issues are now stopping NHS staff from going to work and patients being treated.

Hospital leaders in Bristol, Leeds and London say workers have been forced to stay at home and self-isolate due to a lack of availability.

It comes after reports there are no Covid-19 tests available in the country’s ten worst hotspots for the disease, and the shortages could continue for weeks.

This morning home secretary Priti Patel said it was "wrong to say" there were no tests available, claiming the government is "surging capacity" in local lockdown areas.

But NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said the issue is having a “significant impact and a growing impact on the NHS, and that is a problem”.

He added: "Nobody knows how widespread this problem is, nobody knows how long it's going to go on for, nobody knows, for example, given that there are scarcities of tests, about who's going to be prioritised for those tests that are available."

He told Sky News: “Chief execs in Leeds and Bristol in London, all of whom are saying 'look we've got staff off that we simply can't afford to have off', because they can't get access to tests.

“And of course, part of the problem is that if you've got a family member who could have coronavirus and you can't get a test then you should be self-isolating, so it's not just actually the test for the individual member of staff, it’s also getting access to tests for their family members.

“And what we think has happened is that the volume of requests for testing has really risen exponentially after scores went back.”

He accused the government of not “being as open as trusts would like about how big this problem is, how widespread it is, and how long it's going to last”.

Hopson told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "If you have got a demand-capacity mismatch, what you need to do is, kind of, prioritise really clearly, in terms of work out who should have greatest access to tests.

"Now, clearly from the NHS's point of view we would want to have our staff tested and we would also want to have our patients who are needing treatment. They are the people who are the real priorities."

An NHS spokesperson said: “Hospitals continue to fully comply with recommended patient and staff testing protocols.

"To further support the national Test and Trace programme, NHS hospital labs have now been asked to further expand their successful, fast turnaround and highly accurate, testing capacity.”

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