Users of the soon-to-be launched official NHS Covid-19 app can have “full confidence” over the protection of their private data, a health minister has said.
The long-delayed contact tracing app is due to be launched across England and Wales on September 24 after being hit by problems and delays.
It uses bluetooth technology to keep an anonymous log of those in close proximity to a user and can notify them if someone who was near them later tested positive for coronavirus.
Speaking to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on Thursday, health minister Lord Bethell of Romford said the new app, which he had been using for the last three weeks, was “very impressive” and would play an “incredibly important” part in the contact tracing process.
The first version, an NHSX app, was trialled on the Isle of Wight with the aim of it being rolled out more widely across the country in May.
But by June, the Government abandoned plans for its own app, instead allowing Apple and Google to take over the project.
Asked about criticism of previous plans for a “centralised” app by Labour MP Dawn Butler, Lord Bethell said the Government had “learnt from that” and taken a “different approach”.
“This is a decentralised app,” he said, adding that this would bring “consumer confidence”.
Lord Bethell said: “The consumer can rightly believe that their data is secure on the device, it is very heavily protected, and that they can carry this app in the full confidence that it is fully private and held by them and them alone.”
Simon Thompson, managing director of the NHS Covid-19 App, said it will only notify users they were a “high-risk contact” if someone who had been near them had tested positive for Covid-19.
He told MPs that downloading the app was voluntary.
Asked about the distance-between-people sensitivity of the app, Mr Thompson said an alert was triggered based on medical advice, which is “around about two metres for around about 15 minutes”.
Lord Bethell said he would write to the committee when asked to explain why this measure deviated from the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) advice, that app users should receive a trigger if they spend 15 minutes within one metre of someone who has tested for Covid-19.
Committee chairman Greg Clark said the two-metre distance requirement would “capture more people”.
Asked why a different metric was being used in England, Lord Bethell said: “We have assessed a lot of different ways – there is a balance that needs to be struck between getting the positives right and the negatives right.
“We can’t have an app that throws off so many false positives that trust is undermined – in all of these epidemiological efforts, you’re trying to have something that is both effective and trusted and we think that the balance of 15 minutes and two metres strikes the right point in this balance.”
Lord Bethell agreed to Mr Clark’s request that he write to the committee setting out the Government’s evaluation of why it rejected the WHO advice.
Mr Thompson said the the app would also help users monitor their symptoms.
A “check-in” function, activated by scanning QR codes, will allow people to log where they have been, allowing Test and Trace to contact them if there had been an outbreak there.
Businesses and venues can now get ready for the national launch of the #NHSCOVID19app on 24 Sept by downloading NHS QR Posters. Making it easier for your customers to safely check-in and be alerted in the event of a coronavirus outbreak.
— NHS COVID-19 app (@NHSCOVID19app) September 16, 2020
Businesses across England and Wales are being encouraged to download and print off posters with the QR codes.
Tests can also be booked through the app and an “isolation companion” contains advice for people required to self-isolate.
Mr Thompson said users will be allowed to “switch off” the contact tracing under three conditions.
This could be that someone is wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), when they are working behind a Perspex screen or if they are leaving their device in a locker at work.
A reminder function can also be set to prompt people to turn the contact tracing back on.
The latest version of the app has been trialled once again on the Isle of Wight and also in the London Borough of Newham and among NHS Volunteer Responders.
Mr Thompson said the adoption of the app in these areas had been “very encouraging”.