How will the UK’s coronavirus contact tracing app work?

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The NHS has published some of the first details of how a contact tracing app will work in the UK.

Here is a closer look at what we know so far.

– What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing is the process of reducing virus transmission by identifying and alerting people who may have been exposed so that they can protect themselves and others around them.

Contact tracing is seen by many experts as a key factor in beating Covid-19 and helping the country out of lockdown if applied correctly alongside other key factors such as increased testing.

– How will the app work?

Using Bluetooth Low Energy signals, the app will log each time it comes into close range of other devices also running the app.

People on smartphones
The app will log each time it comes in range of other devices also running the technology (PA)

If someone develops symptoms of Covid-19, they can use the app to inform the NHS, which will then trigger an anonymous alert to any other app users the infected person came into contact with by analysing the collected logs.

The app will then advise what action to take, including telling people to self-isolate if necessary.

– Will it be able to do anything else?

NHSX, which is developing the app, has said future versions of the software will give people the option to volunteer to provide the NHS with additional information about themselves to help with wider Covid-19 research.

It said the extra data could be used to help identify hotspots and trends around the virus and its transmission.

– How will user privacy be protected?

Users will be able to delete the app and all its associated data whenever they want, NHSX says, and while in use that data will only ever be used for NHS care, management, evaluation and research.

Users will not be forced to install the app, although the NHS has said that in order for contact tracing to be effective, large numbers of people need to choose to take part.

NHSX has also said it will publish the key security and privacy designs of the app alongside its source code “so that privacy experts can ‘look under the bonnet’”, and is working with tech giants including Apple and Google on the system.

– What is Apple and Google’s involvement?

Google and Apple
Tech giants Google and Apple are also involved (PA)

They are building technology in two phases:

First, in May, the two companies say they will add the ability for iPhone and Android devices to exchange information with each other using Bluetooth via official health authority contact tracing apps around the world.

The tech giants have said that in the coming months, they then plan to build the technology directly into their operating systems so it can reach more people, including those using older phones and do away with the need to download a third-party app to log contact with others.

iOS and Android account for the vast majority of smartphones being used around the world.

The two companies have pledged to reinforce security too, saying “privacy, transparency and consent are of utmost importance in this effort”.

– When is the NHS app expected to be released?

A date for the app’s release has not been confirmed and it remains in the development and testing phase.

So far, NHSX has only confirmed the app will be launched “in the coming weeks”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said contact tracing works best when the number of infections figure is greatly reduced.

Mr Hancock told Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday morning: “The truth is that we need to get the number of new cases down, right down, and the lower you go, the more effective contact tracing is because the more resources you can put into each individual case that gets a positive test.”

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