England and Wales’s long-awaited Covid-19 contact tracing app is due to go live on 24 September, the government announced today.
In a statement issued this morning (11 September), the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) confirmed that the app, which has been beset by a series of delays and missteps, would launch in just under two weeks time.
The move comes after ministers stated in June that, in light of a pivot to a decentralised framework developed by Apple and Google, the app would not be ready until Winter, raising fears that the £11.8m project might never be rolled out.
But DHSC said today that trials of the new app on the Isle of Wight and in the London Borough of Newham had proved the technology was “highly effective when used alongside traditional contact tracing to identify contacts of those who have tested positive for coronavirus”.
The health secretary Matt Hancock said in a statement: “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.
As part of the plans for the September rollout, ministers are encouraging business venues to download test QR codes that customers can use to quickly check-in via the app. DHSC said the data gathered through the system would remain on a user’s phone for 21 days.
“If during that time a coronavirus outbreak is identified at a location, the venue ID in question will be sent to all devices,” DHSC said in its statement. “The device will check if users have been at that location and if the app finds a match, users may get an alert with advice on what to do based on the level of risk.”
Hancock added: “It is vital we are using the NHS Test and Trace system to reach as many people as possible to prevent outbreaks and stop this virus in its tracks. This function will make it simple and easy so we can keep this virus under control.”
Simon Thompson, managing director of the NHS Covid-19 App, said his team had work “tirelessly” to develop the new app. “We are now giving businesses the time to prepare their venues ahead of the app becoming available across England and Wales,” he added. “We are working closely to engage, educate and inform them about how the App works and how they can play their part.”
The government came under fire earlier in the year for pressing ahead with its centralised contact-tracing app, which would notify users if they had come into close contact with someone who had later tested positive for the virus.
The locations of potential transmission were set to be stored in a centralised database that would provide the government with an insight into how the virus was spreading. But experts had warned that Apple privacy controls meant that the app would not work properly on iPhones, a truth borne out by initial Isle of Wight trials.
The new app will also notify users if they might have come into contact individuals who later tested positive, but the system is decentralised, meaning the government cannot access the data.
The results of an ongoing population surveillance study revealed on Friday that the number of cases of Covid-19 in England is now doubling every eight days.