Back-to-basics Covid-19 app ready for launch after test and trace scheme scaled back

Laura Donnelly
·4-min read
Ireland's Covid Tracker app, used for contact tracing the spread of coronavirus, is displayed on a mobile phone - Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Ireland's Covid Tracker app, used for contact tracing the spread of coronavirus, is displayed on a mobile phone - Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

A basic version of the much-delayed NHS coronavirus app is expected to be launched on Thursday, days after health officials laid off thousands of contact tracers

The scaled-back model is expected to tell people about infection levels in their area, work out their own risk and book a Covid-19 test.

The functions mean people could be alerted if they are likely to have been in contact with more people than usual, meaning they were at increased risk.  

However, the original purpose of the app – to contact people to let them know they had been in close contact with a person with coronavirus – is yet to be rolled out. Pilots are expected to start again after being abandoned on the Isle of Wight earlier this year. 

For months, the NHS promised to produce such a function – but in June officials admitted the plans were not working and instead pledged to work with Apple and Google. These aspects of the model will need to be piloted before being added to the national app.

NHS track and trace app timeline
NHS track and trace app timeline

Under the new plans, people will also be able to book coronavirus tests through the app and use it to scan Quick Response codes at pubs and restaurants so patrons can be alerted if other customers test positive. 

Users may be able to enter personal information about themselves to see their own risk score, taking into account both the infection rate in their own area and their own vulnerability should they get the virus because of their age, weight or underlying health conditions.

Officials believe such advice might help people to comply with social distancing guidance

Earlier this week, health officials announced that the national test and trace scheme will be scaled back under plans to replace thousands of call centre workers with council staff knocking on doors

The major overhaul of the system follows warnings that the service is now reaching fewer than half the contacts of those who test positive for Covid-19. On average, those working for the call centres are reaching just one case a month, research shows.

Coronavirus podcast newest episode
Coronavirus podcast newest episode

Mass testing and tracing was abandoned in March and not restarted until the end of May, with the rollout of NHS Test and Trace.

On Wednesday, Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, criticised the Government for stopping efforts to isolate and trace coronavirus cases. He told MPs: "Test and trace should have been in place three months before it was." 

He said the NHS Test and Trace system in England is not "fit for purpose, let alone world class". 

Mr Hopson said there was an "awful lot" to do to get the service in place for winter, adding that the research to be published by the body later this week will show NHS leaders "are not particularly confident" about the system so far.

Councils have warned that many of those being called reject attempts to contact them, because they assume that the unfamiliar "0300" number is a cold caller.

The changes also follow warnings that the safe reopening of schools next month depends on improvements in efforts to test and track the virus.

The national service will be reduced from 18,000 to 12,000 contact tracers amid concern that, in recent months, thousands of outsourced workers employed by Serco and Sitel have been sitting idle.  

In June, ministers announced that the contact tracing app would be abandoned and replaced after an audit found it could detect just one in 25 contacts on Apple phones. 

The programme had been dogged by criticism, with questions being asked for months about why Britain insisted on building its own app rather than harnessing the skills of the tech giants. 

In May, the Prime Minister promised a "world-beating" test, track and trace operation by June 1 as part of efforts to bring Britain out of lockdown. But when the system launched, it was based only on manual tracing, with officials refusing to say when the app would be ready and describing it as "the cherry on the cake".