How will NHS’s coronavirus contact tracing app built on Apple and Android work?

The NHS will publish a new app which allows people to trace their contact with people infected with the coronavirus in the ‘coming weeks’.

In a bid to try and lower the rate of infection in the UK, NHSX – a new tech team launched by the Department of Health – is producing a contact tracing app.

Contact tracing is the process of reducing virus transmission by identifying and alerting people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus so that they can protect themselves and others around them.

Using Bluetooth Low Energy signals, the app will log each time it comes into close range of other devices also running the app.

It will then keep an anonymous record of all these logs securely on a user’s phone.

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The app will try to alert people when they have been in contact with a coronavirus patient

If someone develops symptoms of Covid-19, they can use the app to inform the NHS, which will then trigger an anonymous alert to any other app users the infected person came into contact with by analysing the collected logs.

The app will then advise what action to take, including telling people to self-isolate if necessary.

NHSX has said future versions of the software will give people the option to volunteer to provide the NHS with additional information about themselves to help with wider Covid-19 research.

It said the extra data could be used to help identify hotspots and trends around the virus and its transmission.

Users will be able to delete the app and all its associated data whenever they want, NHSX says, and while in use that data will only ever be used for NHS care, management, evaluation and research.

Users will not be forced to install the app, although the NHS has said that in order for contact tracing to be effective, large numbers of people need to choose to take part.

The app will advise people whether they should self-isolate or not
The app will advise people whether they should self-isolate or not

NHSX has also said it will publish the key security and privacy designs of the app alongside its source code “so that privacy experts can ‘look under the bonnet”‘, and is working with tech companies including Apple and Google on the system.

The two technology giants have announced they are working together to try and make such a system easier to implement.

They are building technology in two phases.

First, in May, the two companies say they will add the ability for iPhone and Android devices to exchange information with each other using Bluetooth via official health authority contact tracing apps around the world.

The tech giants have said that in the coming months, they then plan to build the technology directly into their operating systems so it can reach more people, including those using older phones and do away with the need to download a third-party app to log contact with others.

iOS and Android account for the vast majority of smartphones being used around the world.

The two companies have pledged to reinforce security too, saying “privacy, transparency and consent are of utmost importance in this effort”.

A date for the app’s release has not been confirmed and it remains in the development and testing phase.

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Coronavirus outbreak

So far, NHSX has only confirmed the app will be launched “in the coming weeks”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said contact tracing works best when the number of infections figure is greatly reduced.

Mr Hancock told Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday morning: “The truth is that we need to get the number of new cases down, right down, and the lower you go, the more effective contact tracing is because the more resources you can put into each individual case that gets a positive test.”

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