This is how the new NHS coronavirus app actually works

Jennifer Savin
·4-min read
Photo credit: pixelfit - Getty Images
Photo credit: pixelfit - Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

The coronavirus pandemic has introduced plenty of new phrases to get to grips with, from social distancing to self-isolating. Today though, the buzz is all around contact tracing, thanks to the launch of the new NHS Covid-19 app (which reports say has already been downloaded over 12 million times). Although not specific to COVID-19, contact tracing has been used to combat other diseases in the past and is once again being used as a method for helping control and slow the spread of the virus.

After many voiced their privacy concerns surrounding the app, it's important to note that at this stage it's voluntary to use. It includes a QP-scanning feature, which the user can simply scan as opposed to jotting their details down in a paper log (although in Wales you still need to do that too). Early complaints, according to a BBC report, also say users have had difficulty inputting their test results into the app, slightly defeating the point of it being used to keep track of where people with the virus have been.

With this in mind, we were keen to learn more about what is contact tracing actually is, and whether or not it's actually likely to help stop the spread of coronavirus, so have asked Dr Aragona Giuseppe, a GP and Medical Advisor at Prescription Doctor to clear up any confusion.

What is contact tracing and how does it work?

"Contact tracing is used as a way to slow the spread of infections," explains Dr Giuseppe. "It simply means tracking down anyone who has been in close contact with a person who is infected [for instance, with coronavirus] and asking them to self-isolate to prevent further infections." In the past, contact tracing has mostly been known for its use in the sexual health world, when patients who have been infected with an STI are advised by clinics to reach out to anyone they've been intimate with in a bid to halt the infection being passed on further. Contact tracing has also been used to track diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, bacterial infections, SARS and most notably, in the elimination of smallpox.

"However, unlike contact tracing in sexual health clinics, contact tracing in current circumstances may be more difficult, as it's harder to know exactly who you’ve come into close contact with and who you may have spread the virus to." This is why the two meters apart rule is so imperative, Dr Giuseppe says, and what the NHS app has been designed to combat. It's also why social distancing will have to be implemented for many months to come.

Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images
Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images

How does the NHS Covid-19 app work?

Due to the success of contact tracing in the past, the NHS Covid-19 app is designed to note the location of confirmed coronavirus cases, alert those nearby who have possibly been infected, and give a diagnosis or offer treatment to those already infected.

"The app will essentially work by keeping track of everyone a person has come into close contact with, and if either persons have symptoms they have to alert the app so that the government can then contact everyone they've been in close proximity with and advise them to self-isolate," says Dr Giuseppe. If successful, he adds, this should slow down the rate of infection and potentially stop further infections.

When asked if he thinks the app is a good idea, Dr Giuseppe said, "I think it is, we've seen that this type of contact tracing work previously – however, there are cons to it which could cause it to be inefficient." One example being that the public will need to be completely onboard with the idea of the app, and feel comfortable giving it permission to know their movements. "This offers up many questions over a person’s privacy, but if the public adhere to the method and use the app then we should see a decrease in infection rate, so really the positives outweigh the negatives."

The Department of Health and Social Care told Cosmopolitan UK earlier this year, "When you install the NHS COVID-19 App, it will start logging the distance between your phone and other phones nearby that also have the app installed." This distance will be recorded via a low energy form of Bluetooth and the log of anonymous proximity information will be stored securely on your phone.

"If you become unwell with symptoms of COVID-19, you can allow the NHS COVID-19 App to inform the NHS and trigger a notification that the NHS will then send, again anonymously, to all other NHS COVID-19 App users with whom you came into significant contact over the previous few days."

Dr Aragona Giuseppe is a GP and Medical Advisor at Prescription Doctor.

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