The UK began trials of a new smartphone app on Thursday designed to track Covid-19 infections within the community, with versions also available in Indian languages such as Punjabi, Gujarati, Bangla and Urdu in order to reach ethnicities not well-versed in English.
The new app is part of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) Test and Trace service Test and Trace programme and is being overseen by Indian-origin techie Randeep Sidhu as Head of Product.
The new application dubbed a “state-of-the-art app that is safe, simple and secure”, will begin trials this week among residents on the Isle of Wight region on the south coast of England and among NHS volunteer responders across England before expanding to the London borough of Newham.
A UK-wide roll-out is expected later this year by which time it will also be available in at least six other languages with the aim of encouraging a large number of people to download it.
“We’ve worked with tech companies, international partners, privacy and medical experts to develop an app that is simple to use, secure and will help keep the country safe,” said UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
“It’s essential we get the country moving again so people can get back to doing what they love. Our statistics show more people with symptoms are getting tested and NHS Test and Trace reaches the vast majority of people testing positive, and their contacts,” he said.
The app is expected to further enhance the current volunteer-backed test and trace system and will build on the feedback from an earlier version of an NHS app, which was also trialled on the Isle of Wight.
The new version is designed to work alongside traditional contact tracing services and testing, to help people understand if they are at risk of infection so they can take appropriate action.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that it uses the latest in security technology and is designed with user privacy in mind, so it “tracks the virus and not people”.
“It’s really important that we make it as easy as possible for everyone to engage with NHS Test and Trace,” said Dido Harding, Executive Chair of the NHS Test and Trace Programme.
“By launching an app that supports our integrated, localised approach to NHS Test and Trace, anyone with a smartphone will be able to find out if they are at risk of having caught the virus, quickly and easily order a test, and access the right guidance and advice,” said Harding.
“There is no silver bullet when it comes to tackling coronavirus. The app is a great step forward and will complement all of the work we are doing with local areas across the country to reach more people in their communities and work towards our vision of helping more people get back to the most normal life possible at the lowest risk,” she said.
The NHS Test and Trace programme said it has worked closely with major tech companies, including Google and Apple, and teams in countries across the world such as Germany using similar apps.
Simon Thompson, Managing Director of the NHS Test and Trace App, said the new app will be like having “NHS Test and Trace in your pocket”.
“NHS Test and Trace is vital to controlling the spread of coronavirus and this app is designed to give people maximum freedom at minimum risk,” Thompson said.
“We have worked with some of the most innovative organisations in the world, such as Apple, Google, scientists from the Alan Turing Institute and Oxford University and governments across the world to come up with a state-of-the-art product which works to protect people every day,” he said.
The app comes with a range of enhanced features aimed at reducing personal and public risk from Covid-19, including an alert system letting users know the level of coronavirus risk in their postcode district, a QR code check-in option to warn users if they have recently visited a venue where they may have come into contact with someone who later tests positive with Covid-19 and a symptoms tracker.
The designers behind the app stress that it is designed to the “highest standards of data privacy and data security” and will not track individuals or hold personal information such as name, address or date of birth.
“As a direct result of our incredible, collective effort an improved app has been developed and now, we along with others are being asked to help test this app once again,” said Dave Stewart, Council Leader of Isle of Wight – where an earlier version of an NHS app was trialled.
“We know that Newham has seen some of the most significant impacts of Covid-19 due to the health inequalities and vulnerabilities in our communities,” said Rokhsana Fiaz, the Mayor of Newham – a diverse area of east London with a large ethnic minority population.
“With its easy to use features, the app will be available in different languages and comes with the assurance that personal data stays with the user so that people’s privacy is protected,” she said.
The new app comes as the DHSC released the latest statistics from the tenth week of its NHS Test and Trace operation, which shows that the service has reached more than a quarter of a million people since the service launched.