By Rachael Grealish
After months of speculation and waiting the COVID-19 test and trace app has launched in England and Wales and the public is being urged to download it.
The app is designed to track the virus and slow the spread of transmissions, a necessary move after Coronavirus cases have risen dramatically in the UK.
The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has called this an ‘important step forward’ in fighting the ‘invisible killer’.
How do you get the app?
Users can download the NHS Covid-19 app from Apple’s App Store on iOS or Google’s Play Store for Android devices. Search ‘NHS Covid-19’.
The handsets must have Android 6.0 (released in 2015) or iOS 13.5 (released in May 2020) and Bluetooth 4.0 or higher.
However, many owners of iPhone 6 or older are noticing they are unable to download the app.
How does the app work?
When a person downloads the app they’ll be asked by their operating system to turn on the exposure logging and notification system.
The person is then given the risk level for the local authority of the postcode they’ve entered.
Beneath that it will confirm whether the app is active and using low-strength Bluetooth signals to scan for other smartphones near by.
When two people’s devices, with the app running, get close together they’re said to exchange Bluetooth ‘handshakes’ to determine the distance and duration, measured in sessions lasting five minutes.
The measurements are not always accurate, but the logs are used to create a cumulative points score for the set of interactions between two people over the course of a day.
If the points threshold is met and one of the two owners later shares a positive coronavirus test via the app, the other will receive an alert to self-isolate and get a test if they begin with COVID symptoms.
The app works in the background and tracks every other app user who comes into “significant contact” with you.
‘Significant contact’ mostly means being less than two metres from someone.
But what about privacy?
Privacy has been a major factor of controversy authorities have faced releasing the app.
For the app to work users must turn on exposure notifications – which can be turned off at any time.
If it is on, instead of sending data to a public health authority, the phone will use Bluetooth to retain on the device a collection of protected IDs remembering all of the other phones it has been near.
Basically, nobody, including the government, will know who or where a particular user is.
How does the QR code work?
The app also allows users to ‘check-in’ to local businesses by scanning the NHS Test & Trace QR code poster that many businesses are now required by law to display.
The app will alert users if they have come into contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.
Businesses and organisations covered by the new law that do not display a QR code poster can be fined up to £4,000.
What about fines for not self-isolating?
The Department of Health had said that users must obey the command to self-isolate if told to and would in theory be liable for fines of £1,000 or more if they did not.
However, as the app lets users remain anonymous and health chiefs want it to be popular, fines for users should not be an issue.
Matt Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today Show: “Everybody who downloads the app will be helping to protect themselves, helping to protect their loved ones, helping to protect their community because the more people who download it, the more effective it will be.”
In Cumbria health officials are urging people to download and use the app in order to control the virus in the county.
Colin Cox, Cumbria’s Director of Public Health, said: “I’m strongly encouraging people to download the app. The more people who use it the more powerful it becomes in helping us stop the spread of this virus.
“I know it has been a long time coming and people may be sceptical, but the trials of the system elsewhere in the country have gone well and it’s clear this is an important weapon in our fight against COVID-19.
“I want to stress that the app cannot be used to identify you, track you, check if you are self-isolating or by law enforcement, but it can make a significant difference to our ability to keep the virus under control.
“Local businesses covered by the new regulations should now have their QR code posters prominently displayed and robust manual systems for logging customer contact details for those who don’t use the app.
“The fines for not doing so are significant and working with partners we will be taking a proactive approach to ensuring businesses are complying with the law.”