Isle of Wight to test new Covid-19 tracing app followed by London borough

A coronavirus contact tracing app for England has edged a step closer with the launch of a new public trial, after months of delays.

The Isle of Wight will be at the helm once again alongside NHS volunteer responders across England from Thursday, “followed shortly” by the London borough of Newham, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.

It comes after the Government ditched efforts to develop its own technology in June amid accuracy issues and concerns about privacy.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock first suggested it would be available in mid-May.

Matt Hancock
Matt Hancock

The second version adopts an Apple and Google-developed system – already used in several countries across the world – which handles data in a more privacy-friendly manner, using Bluetooth to keep an anonymous log of people a user has been close to that they may not know, such as a stranger on a bus.

It features alerts based on postcode, letting users know the level of coronavirus risk in their district, as well as QR check-in for whenever a user visits a public venue.

If a user is told to self-isolate, a timer feature will help count down that period.

Despite initial hype, officials have warned that contact tracing apps are not a “silver bullet” for coronavirus but could support the NHS Test and Trace effort.

Its effectiveness will also rely on public uptake. Even in countries like Iceland where 38% of the population are reported to have downloaded the contact tracing app, one expert overseeing it told MIT Technology Review it was not a “game changer”.

Coronavirus contact tracing app
Coronavirus contact tracing app

The DHSC said its fresh attempt uses the latest security technology designed with user privacy in mind.

“We’ve worked with tech companies, international partners, privacy and medical experts to develop an app that is simple to use, secure and will help keep the country safe,” said Mr Hancock.

“Building on the feedback from the first phase, I want to thank Isle of Wight residents who will again play a vital national role in fighting this pandemic, joined by residents in Newham, London, and our incredible NHS volunteer responders.

“We are hugely grateful to everyone playing their part to rigorously test the new app and provide the foundation for a national rollout.”

It is still not clear when the Government intends to make the app more widely available across England. Northern Ireland has already launched its own app, while Scotland is expected to have one by autumn.

“There is no silver bullet when it comes to tackling coronavirus,” said Dido Harding, executive chairwoman of the NHS Test and Trace programme.

“The app is a great step forward and will complement all of the work we are doing with local areas across the country to reach more people in their communities and work towards our vision of helping more people get back to the most normal life possible at the lowest risk.”