NHS Covid-19 Tracing App Launches, But Not On Older iPhones

People in England and Wales are being urged to download the government’s Coronavirus contact tracing app, after it officially launched on Thursday.

The app, called NHS Covid-19, is now available for download on both the Apple App Store, and Google Play Store.

The arrival of the Covid-19 contact tracing app for England and Wales comes as many countries witness a resurgence of Coronavirus infections. The UK for example on Wednesday reported 6,178 coronavirus cases, up 1,252 since Tuesday, coupled with 37 deaths.

NHS Covid-19

The NHS Covid-19 app is designed to help control Coronavirus transmission its launch was announced by the government on Thursday morning.

The government has urged people to download the app “to help control the spread of coronavirus and protect themselves and their loved ones as case numbers rise.”

The app is available to those aged 16 and over and is available in multiple languages. It will form a central part of the NHS Test and Trace service in England and the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect programme.

To help drive uptake of the app, the government is to deliver new adverts on primetime TV on Thursday evening, with the strapline ‘Protect your loved ones. Get the app.’

All of the UK’s major mobile operators, have confirmed that all in-app activity will not come out of customers’ data allowance.

Essentially, the contact tracing element of the app works by using Bluetooth to log the amount of time you spend near other app users, and the distance between you, so it can alert you if someone you have been close to (on public transport or in the supermarket for example) later tests positive for Covid-19 – even if they don’t know the other person.

The app will advise the user to self-isolate if they have been in close contact with a confirmed case. It will also enable the user to check symptoms, book a free test if needed and get test results.

Privacy focused

The government stressed that the app has been designed with user privacy in mind, so it tracks the virus, not people.

According to the government, the system generates a random ID for an individual’s device, which can be exchanged between devices via Bluetooth (not GPS).

These unique random IDs regenerate frequently to add an extra layer of security and preserve anonymity.

Another privacy safeguard is that the app does not hold personal information such as name, address or date of birth, and only requires the first half of a person’s postcode to ensure local outbreaks can be managed.

No personal data is shared with the government or the NHS.

Tipping point

“We are at a tipping point in our efforts to control the spread of this virus,” said health and social care secretary Matt Hancock. “With infection rates rising we must use every tool at our disposal to prevent transmission, including the latest technology.”

“We have worked extensively with tech companies, international partners, and privacy and medical experts – and learned from the trials – to develop an app that is secure, simple to use and will help keep our country safe,” he added.

“Today’s launch marks an important step forward in our fight against this invisible killer and I urge everyone who can to download and use the app to protect themselves and their loved ones,” he concluded.

On top of the arrival of the app, certain businesses in England are required by law to display NHS Test and Trace QR codes so customers with the NHS Covid-19 app can use them to check-in.

QR codes will help businesses meet their legal requirement to log contact details and allow public health leads to send alerts based on whether people have checked in at venues.

Another issue to note that the NHS Covid-19 app will not work on older iPhones, as iOS 13.5 or later is required to run the app

This means any handset before the iPhone 6S won’t be able to run the app.

Delayed arrival

People in England and Wales are the last to get the app.

Scotland launched its ‘Protect Scotland’ Coronavirus contact tracing app earlier this month, but Northern Ireland was the first British country when it released its app in July.

Unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, which used an app from a commercial company (NearForm), the track and trace app for England and Wales has been under development for months by NHSX, the Department of Health’s NHS technology division.

There have been problems along the way.

The government in June, after concerns about privacy issues, had abandoned the first centralised version of the app, and instead opted for the decentralised approach used by the Apple-Google framework.

But there were concerns about the accuracy of the Apple-Google framework.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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