The government's official contact-tracing app is now available and we are all being encouraged to download it.
So what is it?
Fundamentally the app is a software device that we can download on to our own mobile phone to inform us if we have come in to contact with somebody who has tested positive for Covid-19. Automated contact tracing is designed to complement the work done by humans by helping to identify encounters with strangers - for example, someone standing close to an app user while waiting in a queue outside a shop.
What does the app do?
- The app will alert you when you have been near other app users who have tested positive for coronavirus.
- You will be able to use the app to check in to places like bars and restaurants without having to provide further details to the establishment as this can be recorded using the QR code scanner.
- The app also indicates the risk level of the area you are in, this is shown once you input the first part of your postcode.
- You can use the app to check your symptoms if you start to feel unwell and are able to order a free test if required.
- If you are isolating, the app will count down the days and give you the right information.
- You can also keep up to date with the latest information and advice from the government which links to relevant Covid-19 pages on the governments website.
How does it work?
The app is available for smartphones only - not tablets, smartwatches or other devices.
Unfortunately there are caveats. The app is for people over the age of 16 in England and Wales, and the handsets must have Android 6.0 (released in 2015) or iOS 13.5 (released in May 2020) and Bluetooth 4.0 or higher. That excludes the iPhone 6 and older versions of Apple's handsets.
You will be asked to enter the first part of your postcode to start the process and are not asked for further information at this stage. The app cannot tell who you are, where you are or who is with you. If you test positive for coronavirus, you can choose to share your data with the NHS which will allow the app to be beneficial for other users you may have come into contact with.
The app instructs users to self-isolate for 14 days if it detects they were nearby someone who has the virus.
It also has a check-in scanner to alert app users if a venue they have visited is found to be an outbreak hotspot.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the app "helps us to find more people who are at risk of having the virus" that human contact tracers are unable to find.
He goes on to say:
"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," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
Mr Hancock said users who self-isolated would be entitled to the same support from their employer that they would receive if they were off work due to illness.
The launch comes as the UK reported 6,178 coronavirus cases on Wednesday, up 1,252 since Tuesday, and 37 deaths.
The biggest issue is that the effectiveness of the app relies on individuals to download it and use the app to confirm a positive Covid-19 test.
There are also concerns about delays in the already overwhelmed testing system.
Rachel Coldicutt, CEO of Doteveryone, told the BBC:
"If you don't have symptoms, will a push notification saying you were near someone a week ago make you and your family self-isolate and spend days hitting refresh on the testing website, trying to find a test?" Rachel, Chief Executive Officer of
The BBC's Technology Reporters, Leo Kelion & Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology reporters have highlighted that that:
When someone anonymously shares a positive Covid-19 test result via the app, a process developed by Apple and Google makes other users' smartphones check if they had recently detected the infected person's handset.
But smartphones were not designed for this purpose and the readings involved are not always accurate. This has led to fears of "false positives" - people being instructed to self-isolate who were never at risk.
Matt Hancock has stated that app accuracy is constantly being improved.
The Department of Health has confirmed that users who ignore the app's self-isolation warning are in theory liable for fines of £1,000 or more. However, because they do not have to identify themselves, officials acknowledge this will normally be impossible to enforce.
The app is available in the following languages:
- Punjabi (Gurmukhi script)
- Chinese (Simplified)
- Arabic (Modern Standard)
Additional languages and refinements will follow.