Any future versions of contact tracing app will be ‘fully explained to users’

Any changes in the Covid-19 contact tracing app will be “fully explained to users” and “remain entirely voluntary”, NHSX has said, after internal documents revealed potential development ideas.

The technology is being trialled on the Isle of Wight ahead of a national rollout expected around mid-May, and is seen as a key part of the Government’s “test, track and trace” strategy.

Using Bluetooth, the app keeps an anonymised log of other people also using the app who have been in close contact the user.

If someone shows symptoms, they can inform the app, which will instruct anyone who has been near them to self-isolate.

Contact tracing app
Contact tracing app

In its current form, data will only be shared with the NHS when a person wishes to request a test, but NHSX – the health service’s innovation arm – has said in future releases of the app, people will be able to choose to provide extra information about themselves to help identify hotspots and trends.

According to documents seen by Wired, this could include “self-reported data from the public like postcode, demographic information and co-location status to enable more effective resource planning for the NHS”, as well as asking for a person’s GP practice and introducing a Covid-19 status feature.

However, NHSX has said the documents are out of date – over a month old – and do not reflect current thinking.

“The NHS Covid-19 app has been designed to protect users’ privacy while tackling the spread of infection and could be a key tool to help Government manage the pandemic and save lives,” a spokesman said.

“It does not track location or store any personal information, the app only asks for the first half of a user’s postcode, and if any changes are made in future versions of the app they will be fully explained to users and uptake will remain entirely voluntary.”

The Government has attempted to reassure the public over data privacy concerns, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock saying reports suggesting the app could track people are “wrong” and “not based on what’s happening in the app”.

NHSX chief executive Matthew Gould recently told the Science and Technology Committee that data shared with the NHS, either proactively or as part of requesting a test, “may be retained in accordance with necessary legislation, and may be used in the future for research in the public interest, or by the NHS for planning and delivering services”.