What is the coronavirus contact-tracing phone app? And how soon can I get it?

A smartphone app designed to help limit the spread of coronavirus upon the eventual relaxation of lockdown measures is due to be trialled soon.

But how will it work and what will it do with users’ data?

Here are some answers to those questions and more.

Anemia testing app
A new app is being developed to help contact-tracing (Robert Mannino/PA)

In plain English, what is the contact-tracing app?

The app – which has not yet been given a name – will be downloaded onto smartphones and use low bluetooth technology to work out when other app users are in close enough proximity to potentially spread the virus.

The data is recorded under an anonymous ID, rather than by the person’s name. If and when someone starts showing symptoms, or tests positive for Covid-19, they are able to share that with the app.

The app then sends a notification warning of possible infection to all those phone users to have come in requisite proximity recently.

Sounds quite technical. I just want to know what it will mean for me. Is the app the key to lockdown being lifted?

It could be an important part of it, yes. The Government has set out its five-strong criteria before it will ease lockdown measures.

The app can help with that because it will be able to identify who might have been infected with the virus unwittingly, and help them to limit the spread by advising them to self-isolate.

This consequently helps alleviate pressure on the NHS.

The app is designed to alleviate pressure on the NHS
The app is designed to alleviate pressure on the NHS (Peter Morrison/PA)

Sign me up, signor. How do I get it?

Hold your horses. The app is not ready yet.

The team behind the technology expect to trial it in a “small area” in the coming days, with it ready for full roll-out in “two to three weeks”.

Great! So that’s lockdown lifted in three weeks then?

Not necessarily. The Government has come under increased pressure to lift lockdown measures introduced on March 23, but Boris Johnson has made it very clear he will not risk a second peak of the virus.

A homemade banner saying ‘Stay Home, Save Lives’ is hung outside The Dragonfly pub in Basingstoke
A homemade banner saying ‘Stay Home, Save Lives’ is hung outside The Dragonfly pub in Basingstoke (Andrew Matthews/PA)

What’s the point of having this app then?

The developers say widespread take-up of the app will be crucial in making sure it works effectively.

The Science and Technology Committee of MPs was told on Tuesday that even a “pessimistic” estimate of 60% of the population downloading and using the app would be enough to bring the reproduction number to below one – a crucial indicator in the fight against spreading the virus.

Not everybody has access to a smartphone, including elderly members of the population
Not everybody has access to a smartphone, including elderly members of the population (Yui Mok/PA)

What about people without smartphones?

Not everyone has an internet-enabled mobile phone or a mobile phone altogether.

Likewise, not everyone will want to download the app, it is voluntary after all. The Government will have to hope as many of those with phones do, however.

Should I be concerned about my data being shared with third party companies? 

Emphatically not. That’s what the NHSX – the health service’s digital innovation arm responsible for the app – say.

Developers are working with the Information Commissioner’s Office to make sure the app is compliant with data protection laws, and say phone users can be “confident” their personal data will not be compromised.

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