As new rules come into place this week since the increase of the R rate in September, questions have been raised – again about how the government will continue to monitor the pandemic. On May 5 the government announced a NHS contact tracing app, with the aim of tracking the spread of the virus and isolating new infections, to warn them if the virus started to spread more rapidly. However, on June 18, the government admitted that the app they initially developed was flawed and they’d be working with Apple and Google to develop a new model.
According to BBC, a new contact tracing app will be available across England and Wales from the 24 September. The app will allow users to scan QR codes and track where they have been in hospitality venues, and it will be able to detect other smartphones. The app will tell you if you have come into close contact with someone else who has tested positive for COVID-19 and send notifications asking you to self-isolate.
Sky News reports that the new version of the contact-tracing app will include other features countdown timer for those who are self-isolating and local virus alerts.
Businesses are also being asked to display QR codes to help connect with the app. And some companies, like bars and restaurants who have already been using QR codes, will be asked to switch to the NHS one.
As Sky News reports, Health Secretary Matt Handcock said: "We need to use every tool at our disposal to control the spread of the virus including cutting-edge technology.
"The launch of the app later this month across England and Wales is a defining moment and will aid our ability to contain the virus at a critical time,"
"QR codes provide an easy and simple way to collect contact details to support the NHS Test and Trace system.
The BBC reported that the data collected by the app, such as your location, won’t be stored anywhere centrally, despite that fact that this is what the government initially planned. And The Telegraph noted that data will use anonymous IDs linked to a device, so phone owners will not know who might have passed on the virus. However, privacy experts have expressed concern surrounding patient confidentiality.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Dr Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, head of the Computational Privacy Group at Imperial College London, has warned that "contact tracing requires handling very sensitive data at scale, and solid and proven techniques exist to help us do it while protecting our fundamental right to privacy. We cannot afford to not use them.”
Earlier this year there were concerns raised about whether the app had already been downloaded to people’s phones without their permission, after many people have noticed an addition to their smartphones (both Android and iPhone). If you go into your settings and search the term “COVID-19” you’ll be presented with a COVID-19 exposure notifications page. On an iPhone it’s found in the health sub-section of settings, and Android users will be able to see it in the Google services section.
However, it was soon confirmed that this wasn’t the NHS’ tracking app. It is technology that allows public health tracking apps to work across devices.
The Exposure Notification API was added in recent uploads to phone systems, but users have to make the explicit decision to turn it on. And when the app is ready, the NHS assure members of the public that it will be "entirely voluntary and people have the choice of whether or not to download the app".