NHS: How Does the 'NHS COVID-19’ tracer App work?

Friday, 15th May, 2020 - 16:30

To tackle COVID-19 nationally we are looking into ways we can Test, Track and Trace the virus, so we can manage and eventually eradicate it fully. Among other strategies, contact tracing is seen as one of the key remedies to help the UK remove itself from lockdown and above all, save lives.

Officials also hope the new tracing tool will dramatically slow the transmission of coronavirus by tracking each and every case of it, and in turn, minimising the probability of a second infection wave. The 'NHS COVID-19’ tracing app is one of the government’s next big areas of focus, after beginning trials of the app on the Isle of Wight early this month, ready for roll-out in the coming weeks.

Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer has stated "It’s highly unlikely the Covid-19 virus is going to go away”, and that “Testing and contact tracing is going to have to become part of our daily lives in the future”. That being the case, our nation will need to trust the proposed 'NHS COVID-19’ app in order to help beat the virus.

What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing is a method used to slow down the spread of infectious outbreaks, and is used today in areas such as sexual health. In the COVID-19 Pandemic, it can be used to track people who have or are suffering from symptoms of Coronavirus and will ask people that come in nearby contact to be aware and to self-isolate.

The app uses Bluetooth to keep an anonymous log of everyone you come into close contact with. When they – or indeed yourself – begin to show symptoms of Covid-19, you simply tell the app and it will then alert anyone that has been in close proximity.

But how will the 'NHS COVID-19’ contact tracing app work and when will people be able to download it? Here’s what you need to know:

Once the app has been downloaded, it will send you an alert if you’ve been in close contact with any other users of the app who’ve reported they’re experiencing Coronavirus symptoms. This allows you to take steps to avoid passing the virus on (for example by self-isolating). So, if you install the app (it’s entirely voluntary), you’ll be helping to slow the transmission of the coronavirus.

You can decide if you want to tell the app that you’re suffering from coronavirus symptoms. You can be assured that:

  • The app does not collect any of your personal data.
  • Any information you choose to submit is protected at all times.
  • Any information you submit is deleted once it is no longer needed to help manage the spread of coronavirus.

How does the app work?

Once you’ve installed the app on your phone, it can detect (using Bluetooth) if other phones that are also running the app are nearby. The app knows how close it has been to other phones running the app, and for how long. This allows the app to build up an idea of which of these smartphone owners are most at risk.

If you then use the app to report that you’re experiencing coronavirus symptoms, all the phones that have been nearby will receive an alert from the app. Users reading the alert will now know they may have been near a person with coronavirus, and can then choose to self-isolate.

If the NHS later discovers that your diagnosis was wrong (and your reported symptoms are not coronavirus), the other users will receive another alert, letting them know if they can stop self-isolating.

How do I install the app?

The 'NHS COVID-19’ App currently only works on the Isle of Wight. More information can be found here: https://covid19.nhs.uk/isle-of-wight.html

You should only download the app, when it becomes available, from official stores:

iOS - https://www.apple.com/uk/ios/app-store/

Google play - https://play.google.com/store 

What information do I need to provide to use the app?

Once you’ve installed the app, you’ll need to register your phone. You’ll be asked for the first part of your postcode so the NHS can plan your local NHS response.

Unlike most apps, you will not be asked for any other information at this stage (such as name or email). No personal information is collected.

In order for the app to work, all users are assigned a random installation ID by the NHS. The NHS securely stores the first part of your postcode, your installation ID, and your phone make and model. As an extra layer of security, the app creates a different daily ID. This keeps your installation ID private from any other users you may interact with.

What happens if I report symptoms?

If you report coronavirus symptoms, other users who you’ve been near you may receive an alert in their app, telling them that they may have been exposed to coronavirus. They will not be told who reported symptoms or when the contact occurred. This protects your privacy.

What data does the NHS collect?

If you choose to submit your symptoms to the NHS, and the symptoms indicate you might have coronavirus, you will be asked to send the details of the encounters your phone has collected.

If you give your consent, the app will securely send these details to the NHS digital team:

  • No other information is sent
  • Only the NHS has access to the details

The details you submit let the NHS know how many apps in a postcode area have reported symptoms (or may have been exposed). This will be used to plan your local NHS resources, and to help learn more about the spread of coronavirus.

The NHS can decrypt the daily IDs from the details you submit, to find the Installation ID of any apps that need to be notified about possible exposure to coronavirus. The NHS sends these notifications securely to the apps assessed to be at risk, giving the appropriate advice.

We will be following this topic over the coming weeks and will be providing regular updates...

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