Coronavirus contact-tracing app launch date revealed

The NHS coronavirus contact-tracing app for England and Wales will be launched on 24 September following months of delays.

Businesses including pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and cinemas are being urged to ensure they have NHS QR code posters visible for customers to scan using the app and check-in.

The QR codes are designed to help businesses automate the new legal requirement of recording customers’ contact details, as well as the details for staff and other visitors to the premises.

A spokesperson from DHSC said that checking in with the app will meet the legal requirements – but pubs and restaurants will still need to operate two systems to catch people without phones.

However, the legal guidance on the government website has not been updated to reflect this.

Last month the government launched trials of a second contact-tracing app using technology provided by Google and Apple, after its first attempt to build a homegrown app ended in failure.

The new app will tell people whether they have been close to someone who has had coronavirus and send out alerts advising them to self-isolate.

More from Covid-19

The app adopts a Bluetooth system designed by Apple and Google – and already used in several countries, including Germany, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – to make an anonymous log of phones that have been in proximity to each other.

Advocates say this can help capture anonymous contacts that are hard to track with manual contact tracing, such as people standing next to each other on public transport.

Unlike the first app, this contact-tracing app will also include a raft of other features designed to give users “personal benefits” including a countdown timer for people who are self-isolating and alerts about the local level of the virus.

Sky News previously reported that Apple had denied at least one foreign government permission to include QR logins in its app, citing fears they could be used to create a map of someone’s whereabouts, so the introduction of this feature is a coup for NHSX, the innovation unit building the app.

Matt Hancock MP
Image: Matt Hancock hailed the launch of the app

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “We need to use every tool at our disposal to control the spread of the virus including cutting-edge technology.

“The launch of the app later this month across England and Wales is a defining moment and will aid our ability to contain the virus at a critical time,” he added.

“QR codes provide an easy and simple way to collect contact details to support the NHS Test and Trace system.

“Hospitality businesses can now download posters for their premises ahead of the launch of the NHS COVID-19 app. This will allow the public to seamlessly check-in to venues using the app when it launches.

“It is vital we are using the NHS Test and Trace system to reach as many people as possible to prevent outbreaks and stop this virus in its tracks. This function will make it simple and easy so we can keep this virus under control.”

The saliva test is expected to give results in 20 minutes.
Test and Trace ‘failing’ to reach contacts

Analysis: ‘This is going to be a car crash’
By Rowland Manthorpe, technology correspondent

The app’s main selling point is its check-in system. Ahead of the launch, government is pushing businesses to start putting QR codes in their windows and around their buildings.

But there might be a rather significant problem, because the new guidance for restaurants, pubs, bars and cafes says that “you ask one member of every party who visit your premises to provide their contact details to assist NHS Test and Trace”, or face a fine.

Thanks to its privacy-preserving design, the app doesn’t let venues collect any of those details. All the data – none of which contains your name or address – is stored on the phone. Even public health teams don’t get to see it, as the check-ins never leave the device.

A business owner told me: “This is going to be a car crash”. He believes that he’ll have to have two systems running: one for the app, the other to obey the law. Right now, studying the guidance, it’s hard to disagree.

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