England’s new look NHS contact-tracing app is set to begin public trials today, after months of setbacks.

The app will be based on Apple and Google’s decentralised model. NHSX has been working with the tech giants to develop a new version of the app after abandoning its original model in June.

Both versions of the app used Bluetooth to track time and distance between smartphone devices, but Apple and Google’s version was hailed as more privacy-centric as it only sends alerts between devices when Covid-19 is detected, rather than large quantities of data being stored on a central database.

The trial, beginning on August 13, will again involve the Isle of Wight as well as NHS volunteer respondents in the UK. Then from next week, residents in the London borough of Newham will start trialing the app.

Dido Harding, executive chair of the NHS Test and Trace programme, said: “By launching an app that supports our integrated, localised approach to NHS Test and Trace, anyone with a smartphone will be able to find out if they are at risk of having caught the virus, quickly and easily order a test, and access the right guidance and advice.

“There is no silver bullet when it comes to tackling coronavirus. The app is a great step forward and will complement all of the work we are doing with local areas across the country to reach more people in their communities and work towards our vision of helping more people get back to the most normal life possible at the lowest risk.”

The revamped app has a number of features alongside symptom checking and alerts.

This includes:

  • QR check-in, which will alert users if they have recently visited a venue where they may have been exposed to the virus
  • The ability to book a free test
  • An isolation countdown timer to remind people how long they must quarantine for

Simon Thompson, managing director of the app, said: “NHS Test and Trace is vital to controlling the spread of coronavirus and this app is designed to give people maximum freedom at minimum risk.

“By giving access to the Isle of Wight, Newham and NHS Volunteers first we can make this app even better before rolling out nationwide so the rest of the nation can benefit.”

As well as Apple and Google, the NHS Test and Trace programme has worked alongside scientists within the Alan Turing Institute, medical experts, privacy groups, at-risk communities and teams in countries across the world such as Germany using similar apps to “develop a state-of-the-art app that is safe, simple and secure”, according to a statement from the Department of Health and Social Care.

The app is designed to compliment the Test and Trace programme but won’t share personal data with the system.

Using smartphones in the fight against Covid-19

Contact-tracing apps are designed to use people’s smartphones to track if they have been in close proximity to someone with Covid-19. If they have, appropriate advice will then be given including whether they need to self isolate or get a test.

But concerns were flagged during the initial trial of NHSX’s version after it was found to have poor success rates in tracking proximity to other devices, leading experts to suggest it could cause people to quarantine unnecessarily.

After is was announced by Baroness Dido Harding, who heads the NHS Test and Trace programme, that the NHS app would be abandoned, it was revealed the government has spent £11.8million developing the technology as at the end of June.

Meanwhile, the ongoing issues faced by NHSX have not prevented other countries from releasing their own contact-tracing app, many based on Apple and Google’s technology from the offset. Recently, Northern Ireland became the first country in the UK to release its contract-tracing app, which uses the exposure notification APIs developed by Apple and Google.

A rocky start

Since NHSX first confirmed in March it was working on a contact-tracing app it has been plagued by criticism and privacy concerns.

Shortly after NHSX revealed they were working on a contact-tracing app, tech giants Apple and Google announced they were joining forces in the fight against Covid-19 to provide a solution that would be interoperable with both iOS and Android devices.

Experts questioned why NHSX chose to develop its own app, based on a centralised approach which would see data collected by the app sent to a central NHS database, rather than Apple and Google’s decentralised model.

Hundreds of academic warned this approach could “catastrophically hamper trust” if apps become a tool for “large scale data collection on the population”.

Despite privacy concerns NHSX launched a trial of its contact-tracing app on the Isle of Wight in the first week of May, with a national roll-out date expected by mid-May.

But when the NHS Test and Trace programme was launched on 28 May the app was notably missing, at which point it has been downgraded from an integral part of the tracing system to being a “cherry on the cake”.

After weeks of silence, the government finally announced on 18 June it was abandoning its contact-tracing app and would instead be working with Apple and Google to develop a new version – something experts had been urging for months.

Field tests on both versions of the technology revealed the NHSX version was able to register about 75% of nearby Android devices, but just 4% of iPhones.

The Apple and Google model was more accurate, logging 99% of Android devices and iPhones, but had difficulty measuring the distance between users’ devices.

For a more in-depth look at the contact-tracing app and what went wrong take a look at our timeline of events here.