In September, the NHS Covid-19 app was launched, supporting NHS Test and Trace in England and NHS Wales Test, Trace and Protect, aiming to slow the spread of Covid-19 by alerting people to virus levels in their area, and when they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive.
Here, Dr Sarah Jarvis MBE, Dr Amir Khan, and professor of pathogen dynamics Christophe Fraser, answer frequently asked questions about the safety, effectiveness and purpose of the app.
Who is the app for and who will it help?
Dr Amir Khan: The app is for anyone in England and Wales over 16 who has a smartphone, and can download from Google or Apple. If you have a smartphone, you should download this app. The reason why is that we need everyone to get on board with this idea of controlling the spread of the virus – the best way to do that is knowing where the outbreaks are and knowing when someone who has tested positive might have been in your vicinity. Then getting as many people to isolate as possible.
When will the app contact you?
Dr Sarah Jarvis: The app alerts you if you have been in close contact with somebody who has tested positive for coronavirus, but it is only people who have been in close contact with someone for 15 minutes or more. If you walk past someone on the street who has tested positive, then you are not going to pick it up.
Will it alert me if there is Covid-19 in my town?
SJ: If you put in only half your postcode it will alert you to the risk of coronavirus in your area. I have had this app for a month and used this function the other day. The alert told me the risk had risen from low to medium. This is important for you to know; for instance, it might make you rethink what you do in terms of you visiting, socialising and going out and about.
If I get an alert, am I breaking the law by going out, or is it more, ‘Stay at home so I don’t infect granny’?
Prof Christophe Fraser: The app only advises and cannot force you. You don’t want to go out because you don’t want to infect vulnerable people. We all have loved ones with other illnesses that make them even more susceptible to really bad outcomes from Covid. Among some younger people, it’s much rarer but there are some bad outcomes. Of course, it’s very difficult to quarantine and it can be hugely disruptive and, therefore, it’s really important that the UK government supports people through payments. And it’s really important that employers are absolutely told in no uncertain terms that this is a way we will protect ourselves. We can see the current situation is alarming. Cases of coronavirus have been going up for weeks now, hospitalisation and deaths are following not far behind.
Will the app help to prevent a future lockdown?
CF: That’s what we’re trying to do. The more we can participate with the Test and Trace, the more we can stay in well-ventilated areas, wear face coverings, wear masks and wash hands, the less likely we are to end up in lockdown. So there’s a social pact, we all have people in our social networks who are a bit more vulnerable and who we’re worried about. You don’t need to look at the national numbers, you can just think if you, your friends and your colleagues use the app you’ve got an early warning system: here comes the virus.
What do I do if I get an alert to say I’ve been in close contact with someone with coronavirus?
SJ: If you receive an alert, the app will advise you to self-isolate. If you then develop symptoms, and test positive, the app will anonymously notify anyone you’ve been in contact with.
What are the benefits of this contact-tracing solution over previous methods?
AK: It’s beneficial because you don’t have to ring anyone, you don’t have to go online and search for anything – once you’ve downloaded it, it’s there on your phone. It’s so much more than just contact tracing. It helps alleviate some of your concerns – eg, it has a symptom checker so if you’re worried that you may be having coronavirus symptoms and you don’t want to ring 119 to get a free coronavirus test, or face a queue of other people doing the same thing at a test centre, you can put your symptoms into the app and it will tell you whether there’s a chance you have coronavirus and you need a test. It will automatically direct you to a test-booking website. It’s really user friendly.
SJ: I was highly critical of the previous app, but all my questions and concerns have been addressed. That is why I agreed to be a spokesperson for Test and Trace.
What would you say to people who don’t think it will make a difference, or who are worried about their data privacy?
AK: When I was told I was going to be able to have a look at this around three days before the public, I was nervous about downloading it on my phone because I was worried about data privacy. I was also worried that in the past the old versions had not been working, so I must admit I thought: “Is this just not going to go anywhere?” Lots of people have similar concerns. However, the app protects privacy as it uses Apple and Google’s proven Bluetooth technology, designed so that nobody will know who or where you are. App users are anonymous and the app cannot be used to track your location for law enforcement, or to monitor self-isolation and social distancing. The only personal information it requires is the first half of your postcode, not even the second half, that’s it. The more people who download it, the more effective it will be. I completely understand, there’s been a number of false starts and some people may have lost their faith, but we have got to get behind the app for it to work.
And is my data completely safe? Will it be sold to advertisers?
CF: The data about contacts are entirely private, you have complete control over them, you can turn on and off contact tracing. That’s private information that stays on your phone. No data leaves your phone.
What about my phone battery?
AK: It works by Bluetooth technology on your phone. I was worried that it would drain my battery because I am always on the phone talking to people, but it doesn’t.
What would you say to people who say we can’t do this indefinitely and life needs to return to normal?
CF: Life isn’t going to get back to normal if 20% of the population have to continue shielding. The way to get back to as normal as possible is to control the virus. There are 44 vaccines in human trials, five of them in phase three. Phase three is a large trial where you’ve already established the safety of the vaccine and that it elicits an immune response, so it’s really when you vaccinate very large numbers of people to look really closely at the safety of different groups. Let’s not get pessimistic about vaccines. We will have vaccines that work. But it’s a difficult time. Lockdown is incredibly painful. Quarantine and isolation when you test positive or are contact traced is really difficult, but hold on and keep the epidemic down so that we spend a larger proportion of our time being able to get on with life – it’s not indefinite.
Anything to add?
AK: People are worried that they have received a message on their phone alerting them to a possible infection and then it seems to disappear. [These “phantom alerts” are a default privacy notification from either Apple or Google. If you receive one, but do not need to take any action, you will now be sent a follow-up message from the app making this clear.]
This advertiser content was paid for by the UK government. All together (NHS app) is a government-backed initiative tasked with informing the UK about the Covid-19 pandemic. For more information, visit: gov.uk/coronavirus