Contact tracing app: how the NHS app works and if it will be available to download and use it in Scotland

Lockdown restrictions across the UK are now beginning to ease, with Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland each adopting their own approach to changes

Friday, 24th April 2020, 2:59 pm
Updated Friday, 22nd May 2020, 12:22 pm

Scotland will conduct its next review of lockdown restrictions on 28 May, with the First Minister stating changes could be made “within days” of this date, providing the country continues to make progress in its handling of the virus outbreak.

Easing of restrictions is dependent on the speed at which the number of new cases of coronavirus falls, but at present, this is only being tracked through hospital admissions.

However, through a process of mass testing, ministers hope any future outbreaks of the virus will be more easily controlled - and this will be managed by contact tracing.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The UK is to introduce an NHS contact tracing app to help control the spread of Covid-19

What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing is a long and laborious process that has been likened to detective work.

It is carried out by public health officials and involves interviewing a patient to identify anyone who they have recently had close contact with.

Health officials then alert these people that they may have been exposed to a virus, and often encourage them to quarantine themselves so as to avoid any further spread.

Contacts who are considered to be particularly high risk are intensely monitored to identify any signs of infection.

What is the plan for contact tracing in the UK?

The UK is to introduce an NHS contact tracing app which is planned to be rolled out on a large scale.

The app is currently being tested on the Isle of Wight and was initially meant to be launched across England in mid-May.

In Northern Ireland, a telephone contact tracing system is already in place, and one is also being trialled by the Scottish government.

In Wales, the government wants its “test, trace, protect” programmed to be operational by the end of May.

If the tests in the Isle of Wight are successful, the app could then be rolled out across the country within weeks as ministers seek a strategy that will allow some economic activity to resume.

However, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she was “cautious” about basing a test, track and trace system solely through the app, as it would require high levels of uptake by the population.

She said: “The development of this app is being led by the UK government and we’re seeking to maximise Scottish Government involvement in it. We believe it could be a very important part of a TTI system, but as an enhancement.

“It’s important to be clear in Scotland we’re not building our whole system around that.”

How does the app work?

Smartphone users will be able to download the app and opt-in to record their symptoms if they start to feel unwell.

A warning alert is then sent to others who they have been in close contact with, and also have the app, via Bluetooth signals.

If a person is then confirmed to have been infected by coronavirus, a red signal will be sent to other app users they have been in close contact with.

Currently, the app either tells users: “You’re OK now”, or “You need to isolate yourself and stay at home”.

Essentially, the app aims to identify exactly who needs to self-isolate and who doesn’t, thereby making it easier to lift social distancing measures.

When will it be available?

The NHS is making preparations to roll out its contact tracing app nationwide by the end of May, although no official date has been confirmed.

However, the government requires 60 per cent of the population to download it for it to work effectively.

The decision to roll out the app in Scotland will be a matter fot the Scottish government, according to the Health Secretary, who said “it will be available, but public health is a devolved matter”.

Nicola Sturgeon has said she is "cautious" about the app, and Scotland's system is instead based on "old-fashioned" contact tracing.

If the Scottish government is confident the app works, it could soon be available to download in Scotland.

Why is contact tracing important?

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the contact tracing operation would be functioning in a “matter of weeks”, and said both mass testing and contact tracing are “crucial to holding down the rate and level of transmission of the disease”.

Through a process of mass testing, combined with isolating infected people and their contacts, ministers hope that any future localised outbreaks of the virus can be kept under control.

Both mass testing and contract tracing don’t necessarily need to be in place before the current restrictions are eased, but Mr Hancock said contact tracing works better when the number of infections is low.

He said: “The truth is that we need to get the number of new cases down, right down, and the lower you go, the more effective contact tracing is because the more resources you can put into each individual case that gets a positive test.

"You can really make sure you can get hold of all of their contacts and get them, in many cases, to self-isolate.

"The smaller the number of new cases, the more effective the test, track and trace system will be."

Mr Hancock also announced on 23 April that the government is recruiting 18,000 people, including 3,000 health professionals, as part of the infrastructure to roll out contact tracing on a large scale.

The contact tracers will help to map anyone suspected of infection, thereby minimising the spread of the virus.

How has contact tracing worked in other countries?

Several countries around the world have implemented mass contact tracing in an effort to track and trace the spread of the virus. These are some of the measures in place:

China

People are given a QR code and an app which classifies them as green, amber or red, with their health status determining where they are allowed to go and what they can do.

South Korea

Authorities have traced people’s movements rigorously after testing positive, through means including interviews, GPS tracking, credit card records and surveillance camera footage.

Once potential virus carriers are identified they are also tested and anonymised data of coronavirus patient’s movements is published online, enabling others to see if they may have come into contact with anyone who is infected.

Known as the Covid-19 Smart Management System, it is run by the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and can analyse a person’s movements in just 10 minutes.

Singapore

The government is able to trace between 2,000 and 4,000 contacts of coronavirus patients per day, with police and army officers phoning people who may have come into contact with a confirmed case.

On March 20, the country launched the TraceTogether app to track the contacts of those who have been infected, and it claims to have around 1.1 million users - around one fifth of the country’s population.

The app logs unique codes via Bluetooth signals between nearby phones that have it installed.

Germany

Every person in Germany who has come into contact with an infected patient in the period of two weeks is tracked down and tested, using a smartphone app developed for the Robert Koch Institute.

France

French authorities will implement mobile teams to trace the contacts of people infected, although have not yet specified how many tracers it currently has.

The country aims to test 700,000 people per week and begin lifting restrictions on 11 May.

The government plans to launch a contact tracing app later this month, which will warn smartphone users if they come into contact with anyone infected with coronavirus.

United States

The US currently has 2,200 contact tracers, according to a report by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, although it is estimated it will need an additional 100,000 to trace possible infections.

At present, contact tracing is being conducted at a state level.

Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is helping to build an "army" of coronavirus tracers to test, trace and isolate residents with the virus in the tri-state area, encompassing New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

New York state currently has 500 tracers.

San Francisco has also launched a pilot program linking a tech company with 250 tracers, while Massachusetts has said it will hire around 1,000.

Ireland

Contact tracing will begin in Northern Ireland next week, after being stopped last month based on “sound public health considerations”.

Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said that tracing will become “crucially important” to overcome local pockets of infection.

Belgium

A team of 2,000 contact tracers will be distributed regionally to track the spread of coronavirus.

A total of 200 will be in Brussels, 600 in Wallonia and 1,200 in Flanders, according to the national newspaper De Tijd.

Those who are identified by the tracers will then be tested and quarantined for two weeks if they test positive.

Federal authorities are also working on developing an app to locate people potentially infected with the virus.