England and Wales launch a COVID-19 smartphone app on Thursday, allowing users to trace contacts, check the local level of risk and record visits to venues such as pubs, four months after the technology was promised to the public.
The NHS COVID-19 app comes as Britain braces for a second wave of infections, with daily cases numbers rising at rates not seen since the peak of the pandemic and a testing system unable to cope with demand in many areas.
The government had said a COVID-19 app would arrive in May, but early trials were dogged by problems, and developers abandoned home-grown technology in favour of Apple and Google’s model in June.
As the delay lengthened, the government downplayed the importance of smartphones in fighting COVID-19, saying that rather than an app being central to the test and trace system, it was “the cherry on the cake”.
“We have worked extensively with tech companies, international partners, and privacy and medical experts – and learned from the trials – to develop an app that is secure, simple to use and will help keep our country safe,” he said.
The app uses Bluetooth signals to log when a user is in close contact with another user, generally meaning within two metres for 15 minutes or more.
The app generates a random ID for each user to protect privacy, and matches cases on the device rather than on a central server, as was the case in the first iteration.
It will also enable users to book a COVID-19 test subject to availability, check symptoms, and register at venues using a QR-type bar code displayed by businesses.
People aged over 16 will be encouraged to download the app by advertisements with the strapline: “Protect your loved ones. Get the app.”