With the UK now seen to be emerging from lockdown, the government has been busy trying to find a suitable way to track cases of coronavirus in a bid to prevent a second wave. One solution they have come up with is a contact tracing app, this type of digital app being able to trace digitally on a large scale.
After many months of delay, the app for Covid-19 from the NHS is to be launched across Wales and England on the 24th of September. Restaurants, pubs, and other businesses have already been urged to have the necessary codes ready for their customers to check-in when visiting. According to the Department of Health and Social Care, trials that started last month have shown the app to be extremely effective in identifying individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19 when used in conjunction with traditional contact tracing.
The app has been beset by delays and problems, the app using Bluetooth technology to keep anonymous logs of people nearby. The first attempt by the Government of a contact tracing app was revealed back on May 5th. However, on June 18th, the Government admitted that the application had many flaws and would change to a model developed by Google and Apple.
The latest version of the app has been trialled in the London Borough of Newham and on the Isle of Wight as well as among Volunteer Responders for the NHS. Without an app to date, the United Kingdom has been using teams of trained people to call up those who have symptoms of Coronavirus, asking them to isolate and to track its spread.
So, when will digital tracing be available, and what exactly is it?
Contact Tracing Apps: How Do They Work? Contact tracing apps are designed to allow a person to know if they have been in contact with someone who reports being positive for Covid-19 at a later date.
The app can pinpoint who needs to isolate and who doesn’t, making it useful for relaxing present social distancing measures. The app can track down and trace people who need to self-quarantine more quickly than other traditional methods. When a user downloads the app on their phone they have the option to record their symptoms and details should they start to feel unwell. In some other countries, the user can also enter their Covid-19 test results to confirm they have tested positive for the virus.
The app works by tracking people who have been in close contact through the use of Bluetooth signals that transmit ID anonymously. The Bluetooth signals are low energy and perform what is known as a digital handshake when two people come into close contact with each other. If one person later reports that they have symptoms or have tested positive for the virus, their phone will ping message to those who have been in close contact with them in the last four weeks.
The app will then recommend self-isolation to the people, in case they have contracted the virus. The person who may have passed on the virus will remain anonymous. Such apps that use Bluetooth for tracing have already by used successfully in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Singapore, Italy, and Germany.
What Was the Technology Used in the Previous NHS app?
Work started on the first NHS tracing app in April. The first version of the app was developed by NHS technology and the research arm NHSX with researchers from the University of Oxford and developers from VMWare and other tech companies.
This technology that was built by the NHS would have allowed the tracking of all devices that people have come into contact within the last 4 weeks using Bluetooth signals. This data would use anonymous IDs and not be linked to people’s names, so smartphone owners would not be able to find out who may have passed the virus on to them.
Why Was the Previous App from the NHS Scrapped?
The Government decided that the app presented too many technical challenges, and was sent back to the drawing board. One of the technical problems was an audit that found that in some cases it could detect only one in every 25 contacts on some Apple phones, the app also not working on Android phones that were more than 4 years old.
The root course of the problems was that the NHSX app had to try and work around privacy limitations that are placed on Apple Smartphones that manufacture iPhones and Google who make Android phones. One of these limitations was that when iPhones go idle, they stop registering Bluetooth matches, meaning the technology was ineffective. The revamped app was due to be launched on August 13th, an app that will be a stripped-down version of the original one.
How Does the New App from Google ad Apple Work?
The two giants in tech have teamed up to ensure that all Android phones except Huawei devices and all iPhones can be turned into contact tracing devices. Apps using the API will users notification when they have been in close contact with someone who has contracted the Coronavirus.
The biggest difference with the new app, as opposed to the original NHSX app, is that data will never leave the phone. So, although the NHS was hoping to use the data for research, Google and Apple have made a model that is decentralized and that keeps all information private.
The new system records a contact when a device is within a few feet from another device for up to ten minutes. The Bluetooth technology used can sense devices when they are up to fifteen feet away.
The contact tracing app will work even in the case of people being from different countries, the interoperable system being able to alert users to exposure. Exposure Notification upgrades are now being added on iOS and Android operating systems. This works independently from an app that is custom and nationwide; however, to upload test results, you will still need to use an app that is approved by the Public Health Authority Service. You will also find that you will only have the ability to use such an app on your Android or iPhone if there is already a public health app running in your area.
Health authorities are also able to use the tech to build an out of the box, simple, contact tracing service. This is being called Exposure Notifications Express by the tech giants. This should aid the speeding up of the uptake of digital contract tracing, as the user no longer needs to download an application.
To locate this software, update your iOS or Android device to the latest version. This can be done by checking for updates in the general settings menu of the iOS device and the “about phone” settings on Android. It is currently not possible to activate notifications in England, Wales, and Scotland.
Google stated that the tools would be added on Android devices via a download found in the Google Play Store. iOS software updates will be offered for Apple. Apple stated that the goal is to make it compatible with all models, including older ones. This is the technology that the UK is currently using for its app.
When Will the UK App be Launched and What Will It Look Like?
The launch date set for the new app is September 24. The digital contact tracing app will be powered by Apple and Google and will use Bluetooth technology and a decentralised model.
The app will also include some more bells and whistles. Included in these are QR code scanning that will allow people to check into restaurants and pubs, allowing them to be alerted quickly should a case of Covid-19 be reported.
When a user signs up for the app, they will be required to use the first few digits of their postcode for the process. On the main screen, you will find the feature where you can turn Bluetooth tracing on and off.
The app will also have a QR scanner, a symptom checker, a tab where you can book a test, and a risk rating that is personalised to the user. This rating is worked out according to the number of current cases in the user’s local postcode area, the rating is a traffic light system of green, yellow, and red.
In the case that a user is asked to self-isolate, their device will show a red countdown timer that will show how many days left they have in lockdown.
Will the App Need Mobile Data or Track GPS?
The app checks for contacts using Bluetooth technology. The app does not track GPS signals, and mobile data is not necessary for the app to function correctly.
Are There Any Privacy Concerns?
Some experts have raised their concerns about how the patients’ confidentiality may be compromised.
Head of the Computational Privacy Group, Doctor Yves-Alexandre Motjoye, of Imperial College London, warns that the app could collect sensitive data and information on location.
“Everything must be done to slow the outbreak. Contact tracing uses the handling of data that is very sensitive at scale, and proven and solid techniques are available to ensure that this can be achieved without compromising our privacy. We cannot simply afford to simply not use them,” he stated.
Mr Hancock has pushed back where privacy concerns were an issue, claiming that data is only held when necessary, and that “all data will be handled following the highest security and ethical standards” “If you are to fall unwell, you can let the new NHS app know, and other users that who have been in contact with you will be alerted, your anonymity being preserved at all times,” stated the health secretary.
Are Similar Apps Being Used in Other Countries?
“Trace Together” is the app being used in Singapore that has been rolled out by the government. The App has already been downloaded more than 800,000 times since the 20th of March, in a hope to create a response to the virus that is community-driven.
But contact tracing apps across the globe have been hit by privacy and technical challenges. In Norway, amid privacy concerns, the app is to be deleted. In Australia, the app was found not to work on iPhones once they were locked.
What about Scotland and Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland has already launched its app, England and Whitehall lagging. The app in Northern Ireland runs entirely on Google and Apple systems and already has 250,000 downloads. The app is once-again decentralised and works using Bluetooth. “Nearform”, an Irish Company developed the technology, the same technology being used also in the Republic of Ireland. Meanwhile, in Scotland, more than 600,000 people have already downloaded the “Protect Scotland” tracing app.