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COVID-19 Mobile Application Young Woman Wearing KN95 FFP2 Mask Using Smart Phone App in City Street to Aid Contact Tracing and Self Diagnostic in Response to Coronavirus Disease 2019

NHS contact-tracing app to finally launch in England and Wales

Image credit: Sergiomonti/Dreamstime

The long-awaited NHS Covid-19 app is to be launched across England and Wales on 24 September, boosting the country's contact tracing to help halt the spread of coronavirus.

With cases rising across the UK in recent weeks, health secretary Matt Hancock said the new app would help the NHS Test and Trace scheme - used in England to reach people who have been in contact with a Covid-infected individual - to reach even more people.

The app will be available for pubs, restaurants, cinemas, hairdressers and other venues and their customers to download. People visiting a venue will check-in by scanning a QR code displayed at the entrance on their mobile phone, which can in turn be used by NHS 'Test and Trace' to contact them to tell them to self-isolate in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak.

The use of QR codes will replace the current system whereby people have to manually fill in their contact details when they enter a venue. It will also include an alert system if coronavirus rates rise in your area; a symptom checking tool, and a countdown clock indicating for how long you need to self-isolate.

The Department of Health and Social Care said trials, which began last month, show the app is “highly effective when used alongside traditional contact tracing” to identify contacts of people who have tested positive for coronavirus.

The UK's app, which uses Bluetooth to keep an anonymous log of those in close proximity, has been beset by problems and delays for months. The first version, an NHSX app, was trialled on the Isle of Wight with a view to it being rolled out more widely across the country in May. By June, the Government had abandoned plans for creating its own data-centralised app from scratch, instead turning to the decentralised model developed collaboratively between Apple and Google, which the companies had made freely available.

The latest iteration of the NHS app has been trialled again on the Isle of Wight and also in the London Borough of Newham, as well as amongst NHS Volunteer Responders.

“We need to use every tool at our disposal to control the spread of the virus, including cutting-edge technology,” said Hancock. “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.”

Hancock described the QR code implemented into the app as “an easy and simple way to collect contact details to support the NHS Test and Trace system”.

The department added that businesses that are already using their own QR system are being encouraged to switch to the NHS Test and Trace QR code. It added that an alternative check-in method will be required to collect the contact details of those who do not have the app, suggesting a handwritten register.

Describing the app’s launch as “an important part of coronavirus response”, Wales’ health minister Vaughan Gething said it is sensible for England and Wales to use the same app. 

“Working on a joint England and Wales basis is the most practical option here, as we know there is a lot of movement across our shared border,” he explained. “It makes sense to use the same app, working in exactly the same way, regardless of which country you’re in.”

Gething added that the Welsh government worked closely with the NHS App team to ensure the app is easy-to-use and gives people the right advice and guidance, tailored to the country in which they reside. “I strongly encourage people in Wales to download and use the app when it launches,” he urged.

The app's release comes in the same week that Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that venues in England where people meet socially will be legally required to request contact details of every member of a party and retain the information for 21 days, with fines of £1,000 possible for venues which fail to comply.

As well as businesses in the hospitality sector, universities, hospitals, leisure premises, civic centres and libraries are also being urged to display posters in communal areas, such as cafes, where people are likely to congregate for more than 15 minutes and in close proximity.

Kate Nicholls, from UK Hospitality, urged businesses to download the QR posters to support the roll-out of the app. “Hospitality’s top priority is to protect the health of our customers and staff, but there’s also the added appetite to avoid a return to lockdown and loss of trade. It’s crucial that Test and Trace information is gathered and deployed both effectively and securely,” she said.

She added that hospitality has been at the forefront of Test and Trace, so the industry was keen to work closely with the Government to optimise the app’s functionality and ease of implementation for hospitality businesses. “It is everyone’s responsibility – and in everyone’s interest – to make Test & Trace work, so we look forward to its national roll-out.”

Reacting to the news, Steve Williamson, general manager at open-source digital platform Acquia, commented, “While it’s encouraging to see the UK’s track-and-trace app eventually scheduled to launch, the government needs to investigate why it took so long. From a technological standpoint, there is no excuse for the delay. In a pandemic, speed is critical. When it comes to developing high-quality software at speed, using open source is essential, which other nations were quick to recognise.

“Ireland, Germany and Italy used open source to build their own applications months ago. Sadly, the UK did not follow suit and wasted millions of pounds and hours of resources trying to build its own version. Open-source software enables organisations to tap into knowledge from the world’s best developers and do more with less. It helps accelerate innovation and solve skills challenges.

The government itself recognises this in its Technology Code of Practice, stating bodies must consider using open source. Had Downing Street adhered more closely to its own advice, and not insisted on developing a proprietary solution, the UK’s app stood a chance of actually being ‘world-beating.’" 

Earlier this week, the Scottish government launched its own contact-tracing app, called Protect Scotland’, which it hopes will help control the transmission of Covid-19 across the country.

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