Drop everything and download: NHS COVID-19 app

Second time lucky, eh?

While Finland has recently deployed a team of sniffer dogs in the fight against coronavirus, the UK government’s latest weapon won’t bark when it gets wind of a new carrier.

After its first attempt at a contact-tracing app crashed and burned, the new version is now ready to go and waiting for willing participants to download it to their phones.

Helsinki’s canine detectors have been shown to be nearly 100% accurate. Will this new app prove to be just as effective? There’s only one way to find out...

What is it, then?

NHS COVID-19 is the official contact-tracing app for England and Wales. Once installed it uses Bluetooth to communicate with other phones nearby that are also running the app. If the owner of one of those phones tests positive for coronavirus, the app can then notify anyone they’ve come into contact with.

It’ll work out how risky each encounter was based on how much time you spent near them, how close you were, and how long it was before their symptoms started, so it shouldn’t ask you to self-isolate just because you passed them on the opposite side of the street three weeks ago.

Is it any good?

It’s hard to say at this point but the government has actually called upon Apple and Google this time, which is certainly better than paying somebody who’s never made an app before millions of pounds to have a bash.

Singapore, Germany, Switzerland and our friends in Finland also have contact-tracing apps that have seen various levels of success, but NHS COVID-19 also offers some other features that are still potentially useful regardless of how many people download it.

It has a QR-based check-in system built in, which should limit the number of extra apps you have to download just to go to the pub, plus you can check any symptoms you’re showing and book a test if required. Let’s hope it doesn’t send people halfway across the country to take them this time.

Any downsides?

For starters, Bluetooth isn’t the most reliable measurement for distance as it relies on signal strength, which can be affected by many things. The app also doesn’t take your environment into account, so will treat outdoor encounters in the same way as indoor ones and won’t consider any protective measures that were in place.

The NHS COVID-19 app will also only work on iPhones running iOS 13.5 or newer, which was only released earlier this year. That rules out anyone still nurturing an iPhone 6. On Android you’ll need at least Marshmallow, which was released in 2015, so should be less of an issue.

Any limit on the number of people who can use a contact-tracing system isn’t ideal though, as the system is only effective if it has plenty of people onboard. However, a study by the University of Oxford has suggested that even with only 15% of the population using it, infections and deaths could be cut by up to 8%. Better than nothing, right?

Where can I get it?

The NHS COVID-19 app is available for iOS and Android, but it’s only for people in England and Wales. Those north of the border have their own version called Protect Scotland, while StopCOVID NI is the one to download if you’re in Northern Ireland. No matter which app you need, they’re all completely free.