Coronavirus: how the UK’s revamped tracking app will work

New software is being trialled months after original version was scrapped by government

Mobile coronavirus
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The UK government’s coronavirus contract-tracing app is being trialled in England from today, following months of delays.

The new app is being put to the test after a previous version was scrapped and is intended to support the NHS Test and Trace effort by “keeping a log of others who come into close contact”, the London Evening Standard reports. The rollout will come as a relief to health bosses, whose app plans have been “marred by constant delays and privacy concerns”, the newspaper adds.

Pilot schemes are due to begin on the Isle of Wight - where as the Daily Mail notes, “the first app was tested and failed” - along with one other area in England and among a volunteer group.

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Users will be asked to scan barcodes at pubs, cafes and restaurants to provide what the newspaper calls a “virtual diary” of their recent movements. If another person present at the same venue at around the same time then tests positive for Covid-19, the user will be alerted and encouraged to isolate for 14 days, and to book a coronavirus test.

“We need the app to help stop transmission by tracing close-proximity contacts as quickly and as comprehensively as possible, capturing those contacts we don’t know or don’t remember meeting,” Oxford University professor Christophe Fraser, a scientific adviser to the Department of Health, told the BBC.

“The app should enable us to return to more normal daily activities with the reassurance that our contacts can be rapidly and anonymously notified if we get infected.”

According to the Daily Mail, the new app is “drastically different from how the original app was designed to work”.

Abandoned by the government in June, the ditched app was based on an alternative system spearheaded by NHSX, the health service’s digital innovation unit, that used Bluetooth connections to create a log of other phones nearby.

But this system “had to deal with restrictions Apple imposes on how Bluetooth is used by third-party apps”, says the BBC. “As a result, it only detected 4% of iPhones in cases where the app had gone to sleep because the two handsets involved had not been in recent active use.”

The failure “prompted a switch” to the new software, which “does not have this problem” and is based on “Apple and Google’s privacy-centric method of one smartphone detecting another”, the broadcaster reports.

The new version will store data on individuals’ phones, rather than in a centralised government database, like similar apps launched in Germany and other European countries earlier this summer.

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