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NHS launches COVID-19 track and trace smartphone app
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A smartphone app developed by the Department of Health and Social Care, in partnership with Apple and Google, has been released for iPhone and Android. Downloadable via the App Store and Google Play, NHS COVID-19 is the official track and tracing app for England and Wales and was downloaded over a million times on the first day.
How does it work?
Marketed as a means of protecting loved ones and informing communities of potential infection risk, the NHS COVID-19 app notifies its users when they have been near someone who has recently tested positive for the virus. It will then instruct them to self-isolate for 14 days, triggering a countdown clock to the point where it’s safe to go outside again.
Instead of using GPS location data, the app will ask for permission to use your Bluetooth. This is how it communicates with other phones you come into close contact with – by sending and receiving unique codes. When someone has tested positive for coronavirus, their recent codes are traced to other phones, which is how alerts are issued.
Users who decide to breach self-isolation rules in theory can be fined up to £1,000. However, to receive a fine would be extremely unlikely. The Department of Health has reassured people there is no viable way of enforcing a fine in normal circumstances. To encourage more people to download the app, users remain anonymous.
If a user is unsure whether they have coronavirus, they can use the symptom checker feature to record their health. If the app suspects a case of COVID-19, it will provide an option to order a test and will advise self-isolation. Another function tells you the current risk level of coronavirus infection in your postcode district.
To help keep track of hospitality venues visited by its users, such as pubs and restaurants, there’s a built–in scanner feature for QR codes. If a venue has been identified as the source of an outbreak, the app will again instruct any users who were recently there to self-isolate. Hospitality venues in England now face £1,000 fines if they do not display an official Test and Trace poster featuring a valid QR barcode.
Accessibility and security
Everyone over the age of 16 has been asked to download the app, but that doesn’t mean everybody can. Older smartphones may not be compatible. If NHS COVID-19 isn’t appearing on your app store, you may be required to upgrade to a newer device model.
To help increase usability, it’s available in a number of languages including English, Welsh, Bengali, Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi (Gurmukhi script), Chinese (Simplified), Romanian, Turkish and Arabic (Modern Standard).
The amount of personal information requested by the app is very little. It was designed to operate on minimal data, and what is supplied isn’t shared with third parties. No account creation is needed. Your name, email address and date of birth aren’t required. The data that can be considered personal which is used is a postcode, potential symptoms, QR code data and your unique codes. These are types of data that can help identify you as the user of the app.
Around the world
England and Wales are far from the first countries to implement this system. Due to delays earlier in the year which sparked criticism, the UK is late in acting. Similar track and trace apps have been rolled out and downloaded tens of millions of times in European nations such as Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Poland and Latvia. Success rates have been varied mostly because the technology is still considered new.
Elsewhere, citizens in Singapore have been provided with wearable Bluetooth “tokens”. The small devices don’t collect personal data and send information to a smartphone app. However, a number of other countries are using GPS data to track movement which has caused privacy concerns.
To find out more about the NHS COVID-19 app, visit the official website: www.covid19.nhs.uk
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