The Latest On The NHS Covid-19 Tracking App

  • 13th August 2020
  • Evgeniy Anisimov
  • Technology
The Latest On The NHS Covid-19 Tracking App

NHS Covid-19 App

The NHS will soon be releasing an App, named NHS Covd-19 , that is anticipated will help during the lifting of the lockdown restrictions. The App is currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight with expectations of it being rolled out across the UK by mid-June 2020.

The aim of the App is to help trace anyone that has been in contact with someone showing symptoms of Covid-19, aka Coronavirus.

The App is a digital tool based on a well-established manual method of controlling the spread of infectious diseases, including such viruses as HIV. The tracking of Covid-19 by this method will work thoroughly because someone may have the virus before symptoms became apparent and may have passed it on unwittingly. The tracking of previous movements of a carrier allows the NHS to notify others of any potential risk, identifying further cases earlier and reducing the spread.

How does it work?

The App is a voluntary download that aims to control the transmission of Covid-19 within communities and identify hotspots.

The App works by using Low Energy Bluetooth (which allows for minimum battery consumption) and works alongside all other Apps without impacting them in any way. The App must be left running, even in the background, for it to work effectively, with Bluetooth turned on at all times.

Each phone has a unique ID and the Bluetooth records other users unique IDs (random strings of numbers) that have been in close proximity and can store the IDs for approximately 28 days.

The Bluetooth technology records the distance from your phone to any others that are running the same App. The stronger the signal, the nearer to someone you have been. It can also trace how long you were near the other phone too.

If you feel you may have symptoms, and you inform the NHS via the App, these unique IDs can be traced anonymously and a message sent to advise the user that they may have come into contact with the virus.

There is a question within the App “How do you feel today?” and all you need to do is provide an answer. If you feel you have symptoms, you will be asked if you have a high temperature and persistent cough and the date your symptoms started.

If you do have these symptoms, you can inform the NHS via the App and a number of things may happen:

  • An anonymous notification will be sent to any App users that have been within a certain distance of you, and your phone of course, over the past few days advising you of contact with a suspected case. Potential risks are determined by a highly developed algorithm, meaning not everyone will need to be contacted.
  • An alert does not necessarily mean you have been affected but is notifying you that someone has been near to you with reported symptoms. Continue to practice social distancing and handwashing unless told otherwise.
  • NHS guidance and advice will be sent to those same people.
  • Rapid swab tests will be arranged to test for the virus for those with symptoms.
  • If you test positive for Covid-19, you will be contacted by PHE (Public Health England) via email, SMS or phone and you’ll be asked to supply details of who you have been in contact with via a web form or by phone call.
  • The number calling you will be 0300 013 5000. Your personal information will not be disclosed to anyone else.
  • You will be asked for names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses (if known) of those potentially exposed to the virus so they may be contacted.
  • If you receive such a text or call, you may be advised to self-isolate for 14 days, but this does not necessarily mean you have contracted the virus. The Government has said this is required but, as yet, no laws have been passed.

The data is stored in a centralised data server and if you verify you have symptoms, all notifications are sent out to the anonymous IDs from there. This helps to identify any hotspots and the rate of spread.

It is estimated that between 60-80% of people ideally need to be using the App for it to work at its most effective for tracking the virus. Due to the nature of how this virus will be tracked, which has never been done before on this scale and by using technology, there is also little evidence to show that it will (or won’t) work.

Don’t forget, you can delete the App any time you like, it is only voluntary.

What details do I need to provide?

Once you have downloaded the App, which will be available on both the App Store (Apple ios versions 11 and higher) and Google Play (Android versions 8 and higher), you are asked to enter the first half of your postcode. This allows the NHS a vague location to help track any spread of Covid-19. Any further information is only required if you report having symptoms via the App.

Can anyone get hold of my data?

Both the NHS and Government stress that NO data is collected that can identify someone and due to the App not using GPS technology, your location can’t be gathered either. The App itself does not ask for any personal information and further information is only required if you suspect you have contracted the virus and informed the NHS.

Any data will only ever be used by the NHS for care management, evaluation and research. There are regular privacy evaluations and the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office) is kept informed at every stage. Although there are concerns that hackers could get into the centralised system, it is not possible for one individual to identify another due to the way it works. The NHS and Government are reassuring that every step is compliant with the UK laws concerning the use of data.

What if I don’t have a smartphone or internet access?

PHE (Public Health England) is running the contact tracking system and has also employed 25,000 people, 3000 of which have a medical background, to help the manual tracing of Covid-19. This manual tracking began on 27th May 2020, a few weeks before the App will be launched fully throughout the UK, and the App is designed to complement the already tried and tested manual tracking.

Manual tracking helps in the situations that technology cannot cover, such as vulnerable people, disabilities, lack of internet access or those without any form of a smartphone or tablet, etc. Such people may receive a call to inform them that someone with the virus may have been in contact with them, eg a carer or support worker.

The NHS is also supporting a campaign by DevicesDotNow which aims to get support and internet enabled devices for vulnerable people, those isolated in their homes and many who have no internet access or devices. Devices are distributed by community organisations and help is provided to those with little to no technical skills to help them access the internet and any online services they need or that will help.

The App is hoping to be supported by some older operating systems by the time it rolls out in the UK.

Is the App open to misuse?

Not via the App directly, but some of the support services could be. Due to some people possibly receiving a call from a published phone number (0300 013 5000), it may be easy for anyone to call from a similar number and the identity of the caller, posing as a government contact tracer, taken at face value. When asked for personal information, some may inadvertently provide what they have been asked for.

For some people, with any degree of technical knowledge, it is quite easy to create a fake text. Be aware of any texts that come through, they should be from a address.

  • Don’t respond to an unknown text
  • Don’t click on any links contained within such a text
  • Never share any personal information via such a text.

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