Everything you need to know about the UK contact tracing phone app

Following the UK Government's u-turn on its decision to roll-out its own contact tracing app, we look at what's next for its track and trace strategy...

Geoff Burns


The UK government has been working hard to find a way of managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now that lockdown restrictions are loosening, the government and NHS are under even more pressure to keep people safe.

One of the most compelling options seems to be to use our obsession with our smartphones as a way of tracking the movement of infected patients.

In theory, a contact-tracing app would provide the NHS with better insights into the spread of the COVID-19 infection. This would also pave the way for better predictions on who might be most “at-risk” in the community.

Unfortunately, creating a contact tracing app that works is easier said than done. For weeks, the UK has been struggling to create an app without the help of Apple or Google for iOS and Android phones. It wasn’t until the middle of June when the government decided to make a U-Turn on its strategy.

Here’s what you need to know.


What is a contact tracing app?

Contact tracing is a strategy to slow the spread of an infectious disease by examining where people infected with the condition might go. If the NHS and government can track where COVID-19 patients go, they can see who they interact with, and pinpoint areas where the risk levels are higher.

The advantage of these apps is that it can identify people the patient might not know as dangerous and provide useful advice. The disadvantage of apps like this is that they present significant privacy problems.

There are two ways any smartphone tracing app could work. One model is “decentralised” where contact information never leaves the user’s phone. The other option is a “centralised” model, where the NHS and government can maintain some critical data. Apple and Google are addressing privacy concerns by focusing on the decentralised model.

Initially, the UK Government chose the other path, with “centralised” information storage. Although the government argued that access to more information would allow the NHS to see how the disease was spreading, the privacy problems were insurmountable.

Even though the NHS promised it would only collect anonymous data for analysis, the app design made it incompatible with both Android and Apple in terms of service.

The contact tracing app tests in the UK

As companies around the world continued to struggle in the new COVID-19 environment, the government tried to act fast. A trial of the contact tracing app started on the 4th of May in the Isle of Wight but was brought to an end on the 18th of June.  The tech used Bluetooth low Energy technology to alert people who may be exposed to the COVID-19 virus.

The tech in the app could examine the distance between two phones with the same app installed, and when a user started exhibiting symptoms of the virus, the NHS could then see who that person had contacted based on phone proximity data.

Unfortunately, even during the beta stages, the app was facing a lot of criticism.

One of the biggest issues was that the public might refuse to download the app in the first place. There were also no plans in place to enforce the use of the technology, so there was no guarantee that people would access it. Of the first 50,000 people to use the app on the Isle of Wight, only one person received a useful notification.

On top of the concerns regarding the app functionality, there were also ethical and privacy issues. Any business owner that has considered a mobile management strategy in the past knows that “permissions” are always a tricky topic.

Most people aren’t comfortable allowing large groups of people to monitor their information. That’s why Google and Apple both restrict how apps can use connections on iOS and Android. Developers can’t continuously broadcast Bluetooth signals, as that kind of broadcast has been an issue in targeted advertising in the past.

This meant the home-grown NHS app would only work when you have your phone screen unlocked, and you’re looking at the app. Since you’re unlikely to use a contact-tracing app constantly whenever you’re outside of the house, this presents a significant problem for the UK’s strategy.

Apple and Google can re-write their app rules for their contact-tracing APIs. However, for countries like the UK trying to go it alone, the restrictions are almost impossible to surpass.


What changed with the NHS app strategy?

Despite a constant refusal to adhere to Apple and Google rules initially, the UK government eventually decided to drop the idea of using its own NHSX software. Britain is now switching to the Apple and Google API model.

The decision to begin using Google and Apple’s guidelines came after the UK government was unable to successfully create an app that would be suitable for purpose without Google and Apple input. Health Minister Matt Hancock said that the app wouldn’t work because “Apple won’t change their system”.

The government says that rather than starting from scratch with the new version of the app, the updated solution will bring the best of both systems together.

The UK’s adoption of the decentralised app approach follows the footsteps of many European companies who have already taken this road. Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Australia all have their own decentralised apps.

Google and Apple’s model on managing data consumption does cause a lot of frustration for governments, unfortunately. The UK health minister says that the government wants to make further improvements to the Apple and Google platform.

That means the country will miss the original launch date of May by several months instead of a few weeks.

At the time of writing, the government is still yet to offer a date for when the app might be ready.


You might already have the app on your phone

So, if the app still isn’t ready, why are some people seeing COVID tracking tools on their phone?

If you own an Android phone, you can go into Settings and Google Settings to see the feature. iPhone users will find the tool under Settings, Privacy, and Health. This exposure notification tool will be off by default – and doesn’t come with any tracing features built-in.

Instead, this feature is just evidence of the new technology that might be available to enable apps to run in the background while still accessing Bluetooth. It means your phone will be able to measure the distance between you and another handset.

The update and arrival of the new functionality has caused some confusion. However, this isn’t a new app – just an extra element added to your phone’s operating system. The tool will allow developers to build apps for COVID tracking and tracing – but that’s all.

When the NHS app does become available, users will need to opt-in to use it. You’ll also have to volunteer to allow the app to run on your phone.

If you allow the app to work, it will be able to exchange data with other phones and alert people if they’ve been near someone with COVID-19. Unfortunately, that information isn’t stored anywhere centrally. That’s a big problem for the UK, where the government wants to be able to gather and track information over time.

Google and Apple APIs don’t give central authorities in any country information about who is contacted about self-isolation. It also provides no information on where incidents are taking place.

Professors and medical experts say that this is a problem. UK scientists won’t be able to make any long-term findings about trends or at-risk areas. Professionals also won’t be able to determine how long it takes for immunity to wear off, or how many people are asymptomatically carrying the disease.


What will happen with the contact tracing app?

The government isn’t 100% happy with being forced to pivot to suit Apple and Google’s standards. However, it seems like the UK doesn’t have much of a choice at this time.

The Department of Health has announced that it’s going to do everything possible to make the app more effective, however. For instance, progress made during the Isle of Wight pilot trial is going to be available for Apple and Google. Some health professionals suggest that the data needs to be available for everyone, however.

When the app is finally available, you won’t have to download it. The NHS confirms that people will always have the choice of whether to download the app or not. You’ll also need to make the explicit choice to turn the app on, and you can turn it off whenever you choose.

For now, it seems likely that a contact tracing app is definitely on the cards. The only real questions are:

  • What is that app going to look like?
  • What kind of information will it collect?
  • Will it work with Google and Apple APIs?
  • When will the app be ready?

If you need help adapting your business strategy for the Covid-19 pandemic, reach out to Nice Network today. We’re already helping businesses like yours weather the storm of the coronavirus with better connectivity and communication.