As we adjust to life in lockdown, we’re all thinking about how the country will beat Coronavirus and return to something that resembles normal life.
Of course, easing lockdown restrictions can only happen when people are safe and the virus is under control, and one method of monitoring this is through a contract tracing app that people can download on their smartphones.
The UK government recently trialled a contact tracing app that’s been developed by the NHS. The trial was limited to residents on the Isle of Wight.
But what is contact tracing? How does the app work? Will it access all your personal data? Let’s take a look at everything to do with the coronavirus app.
What is contact tracing?
COVID-19 is highly infectious, but its symptoms can take up to 14 days to manifest themselves in someone who has caught the virus. Contact tracing is a method of tracking down people who may have been exposed to Coronavirus, and alerting them in a bid to slow any further spread of the virus.
Contact tracing has proved to be a vital tool in some of the countries that so far have managed to limit the spread of coronavirus, such as South Korea and Germany.
With contact tracing in place, if someone has been diagnosed with the virus, everyone they’ve been in substantial contact with, and potentially infected with the virus, is located, contacted and even asked to self isolate or be tested.
The UK government has recruited and trained thousands of contact tracers who will work with the Army to carry out the tracing by making thousands of phone calls. As important as this task is, it takes a lot of people a lot of time to do. This is where a COVID-19 app can help.
How can an app help?
The contact-tracing app allows people to let the NHS know if they have COVID-19 symptoms or if they’ve recently been around someone who has subsequently been diagnosed with COVID-19.
By establishing exactly who needs to self-isolate, the spread of the virus should slow down and ultimately some social distancing measures might start to be lifted.
In theory, if everyone has the app downloaded on their phones, they can easily be contacted and notified much faster than by the traditional method.
How does a COVID-19 app work?
If people download the app and discover they know someone who has COVID-19, and start feeling sick themselves, they can log their symptoms into the app and effectively contact trace themselves.
In fact, that’s the only functionality within the app, making it extremely simple and easy to use.
Upon opening the app, you enter the first half of your postcode and you’ll then be asked the following on-screen question: "How are you feeling today?". Anyone who doesn’t feel well should then tap the screen, where you will then be asked if you have either of the two main Coronavirus symptoms - a continuous cough or a high fever. If the answer is yes, you will then be asked to enter the date when you first started experiencing the symptoms.
You’ll be given a link to health advice and testing information, and crucially the NHS will be sent the details of your symptoms. Anyone who has been near you can then be notified via the app.
It all works through Bluetooth. Providing the app is downloaded and Bluetooth is turned on, whenever a phone is near another phone with the app they will exchange ‘identifiers’ which is no more than a sequence of random numbers with no personal information included whatsoever. Think of it as a digital handshake.
Every phone ID you’ve been near is then stored on your device for 28 days. This ID is only used for Coronavirus tracing purposes, nothing will happen with it unless someone you’ve been near has indicated that they have had COVID-19 symptoms.
If someone does report that they have COVID-19, the app will then look at all the IDs that phone has encountered in the last 28 day. And depending on risk factors such as how long they were around the symptomatic person, they may be asked to self isolate to stop any potential spread of the virus or to get tested. What the app won’t do is reveal any personal details, it won’t say who you encountered, who has tested positive or anything else relating to the user's personal information.
What data does the app collect?
As mentioned, the app doesn’t collect any data that can be used to identify you, or any other personal data stored on your phone. It doesn’t ask for your name or date of birth and it doesn't use GPS tech to see where you are, nor does it display your IP address.
The only data the app collects is the Bluetooth ID code and the type of smartphone used.
Will the app use a lot of my data allowance?
The app relies on Bluetooth to make connections with the devices of other people you come into contact with, it won’t use up any of your personal data allowance. But remember, you will need to make sure Bluetooth is switched on at all times to ensure the contact tracing is effective.
Does the coronavirus app track my movements?
No, the app doesn’t do this either. It doesn’t work using GPS signals so it has no idea where you are going.
A GPS Coronavirus tracking tool has been suggested by the NHS as a future method to collect COVID-19 data, but this will be a separate and voluntary thing.
When is the coronavirus app available?
The NHS Coronavirus app recently completed a trial phase in the Isle of Wight. UK health secretary Matt Hancock has stated that a new phase of research is required for the app. A statement on the NHS website said: "As we enter this next phase of research and development we remain determined to continue in our ambition to develop an app which meets the technical, security and user needs of the public and which can complement the NHS Test and Trace service."
It is not currently know when the app will be made available to the general public.
Are Apple and Google involved with making this app?
Apple and Google have combined resources to make contact tracing tech. Initially, the NHS chose not to use their tech and instead created its own system, which is the app that was trialled on the Isle of Wight.
However, the NHS has now decided to collaborate with Apple and Google.
The NHS has stated that the reason for this lies in the fact that the Isle of Wight trial exposed some techological difficulties in the first app - such as the app not working on all operating systems.
The NHS will now share its findings from the trial with Apple and Google with the aim of creating a Track and Trace app together.
Apple seems to have begun preparations for this already by including a Track and Trace feature in its latest iOS update. It is believed that this will activate fully once an app is released.
Do I have to download the app?
The NHS Coronavirus app is completely voluntary, so you’re under no obligation to download the app. But if the app is to be successful in helping to track and trace the spread of COVID-19, it needs as much of the population using it as possible.
In fact, research conducted by Oxford University suggests that for the app to truly be effective, it will need to be downloaded and used by at least 80% of all smartphone users.
Does the app work on all smartphones?
The NHS app works on Apple and Android smartphones, but you will need to have a reasonably up to date operating system. If you’re an iPhone user, you’ll need to be on iOS 11 or later, and if you’re an Android user, you’ll need to be on Android 8 or upwards.
Apple’s iOS 11 works on any iPhone from the iPhone 5S onwards, so that includes older devices like the iPhone 6 and the original iPhone SE all the way up to the latest models like the iPhone 11 Pro.
I don’t have a smartphone, can I still use the app?
The NHS Coronavirus app will only be available for use on smartphones. However, at the beginning of the Isle of Wight trial period, the UK government stated that there will be ways for people who don’t have smartphones to report symptoms, such as through an online service available on desktop computers or simply with a phone call.
I've been sent a text claiming to be from contact tracers, what should I do?
There have been reports of people receiving texts claiming to be fron NHS contact tracers and asking the recipients to click on a link. These mnessages should be ignored as they are likely from scammers who wish to steal personal information.
The NHS has said that it will call people from the following number from 0300 0135 000 and it will never ask any personal information such as bank details, payments, social media info, or require you to
to set up a password or PIN number over the phone
or to phone premium rate number which may start. with the numbers 09 or 087.