An app using Apple and Google technology that will alert people if they have been close to someone with coronavirus will be launched in England and Wales on Thursday, as ministers seek to beef up the government’s faltering test-and-trace programme.
The arrival of the app draws a line under months of delays during which the government had attempted to produce a bespoke UK-only version that did not involve the tech giants.
Matt Hancock, health secretary, warned that the country was “at a tipping point” in its efforts to control the spread of the virus. “With infection rates rising we must use every tool at our disposal to prevent transmission, including the latest technology,” he said.
The government had 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.
The launch is being backed by a TV advertising campaign, urging people to “Protect your loved ones. Get the app”.
The health department said that mobile network operators, including Vodafone, Three, EE and O2, Sky and Virgin, had agreed that “in-app activity” would not come out of customers’ data allowance.
The contact-tracing element of the app works by using low-energy Bluetooth to log the amount of time someone spent near other app users, and the distance between them, “so it can alert you if someone you have been close to later tests positive for Covid-19 — even if you don’t know each other”, officials said.
The app will advise people to self-isolate if they have been in close contact with a confirmed case. It will also enable a user to check symptoms, book a free test if needed and receive test results.
Customers visiting public venues such as pubs and restaurants will be able to scan an official QR code on their phones, which will store the venue information. “If a coronavirus outbreak is linked to a specific venue, the venue ID will be shared with phone users who will receive advice on the best course of action depending on their risk level,” the health department said.
Senior officials presented the app as a useful addition to, rather than a replacement for, manual contact tracing. They quoted data from Oxford university that suggested that if it was downloaded by 15 per cent of the population, there would be a “meaningful impact” on reducing the R number, the rate of transmission of the virus.
During tests on the Isle of Wight, about 30 per cent of people had downloaded it, while in a second test, in Newham, east London, the take-up had been about 10 per cent, the officials added. This range mirrored the take-up of similar apps overseas.
Work on an earlier version of the app, which would have centrally stored information generated by users, was bedevilled by privacy concerns. But one official said there had been “a razor focus” on privacy in developing the second version, with all data being kept on the user’s phone, able to be deleted at any point.
“Because all the data stays on the phone it is a much more trusted product”, said one person involved in its development.
The health department said the app did not hold personal information, such as a user’s name, address or date of birth, “and only requires the first half of your postcode to ensure local outbreaks can be managed. No personal data is shared with the government or the NHS”.
The UK app marks a win for Google and Apple, who joined forces in April to create “exposure notifications” designed to alert users if they come into sustained contact with someone diagnosed with Covid-19. Just how well the tools work, however, is largely based on how many people opt-in and choose to upload verified positive test results.
Since the tool became available on May 20, more than 35 countries have signed up, including South Africa, Portugal, Finland, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. It has also been adopted by several US states.