Wind turbines on the mountain

NHS England released an official NHS contact tracing app for England and Wales in the App Store and Google Play on 23rd September 2020. The app was being tested on the Isle of Wight and a London borough for several months. It is not the same technology as was already spaffed in the £10m car crash that was the original app. But it is the same Government and team of advisors. This is a far better app.

NHS Scotland released their Protect.Scot app for Scotland on the 11th September 2020. This app was based on open source code originally developed on behalf of the Government of the Republic of Ireland and further developed on behalf of the Government of Northern Ireland. It cost less than a tenth of the England and Wales app to develop and is also the basis for apps for Jersey and Gibraltar.

The app for England is completely completely different to the others although they all use Apple/Google COVID-19 exposure notifications system, and there is a shared notification technology because of that. The differences are in the user experience and the booking of tests so, if in the UK you should use the one relevant to the PostCode you live in.

Apple and Google are only allowing approved local public health authorities to publish such apps such is the sensitivity of the data required.

TL:DR Both apps are good Scotland app has a far more reassuring onboarding process and draws you in to the idea that you are helping yourself and others. Both properly respect data privacy issues regarding the exposure notification information although what happens to venue check-in and test information in the England app is a little less clear to me in terms of data privacy. These apps could be a key pillar of the track, trace, isolate strategy that we still need. I'd recommend installing them unless certain special circumstances affect you.

Note This article was originally published on my LinkedIn.

iOS 12.5 is not supported

Inexplicably, iOS 12.5 is not supported despite the gigantic cost of development for this app and Apple providing new support for exposure notifications for older iPhones like the 5s and 6. Given that is is now July 2021 it doesn't look like an update is in the works. iOS 12.5 download notice, App Store screenshots of NHS Covid-19 and Protect.Scot showing they require iOS 13.5 and iOS 13 respectively

The Scotland app requires iOS 13.0 or later and the England app requires iOS 13.5 or later. iOS 12.5 which supports devices as old as the iPhone 5s was released on 14th December 2020 and added support for the Exposure notifications system.

The apps do not support iOS 12.5 which means some devices although eligible, won't be able to download them. This is an unfortunate oversight given that both these development teams should surely have had beta or developer access to what, aside from security fixes, is the only new feature of this release of iOS. Apple have a history of backporting security fixes but it is quite unusual for them to add a whole framework to an older version of iOS. There must still be a lot of older devices out there, and there must have been quite a decision for the product managers to make these changes what with all the required testing required for release. Supporting iOS 12.5 would help adoption of the apps.

Older Android devices running Android 6.0 or later are supported well

Android 6.0 and Android 7.0 are supported by the apps even though these are outdated and are no longer supported by Google. Android 8, 9, 10 and 11 work well of course.

Age restrictions

Both apps state that they are for age 12+ on the App Store. On first run the England app requires you to declare that you are 16+ and will not run unless you do. This is in sharp contrast to the well though out help for people under 16 in the Scotland app which allows them to continue and gives advice.

Apple and Google both require developers to set the age rating for apps via answering questions about the app so that apps align properly with parental controls and national regulations in the App Store and Google Play. So it is baffling to me that you need to confirm age on first run. I don’t know why it is different in app to on the app listing. Anyway - kids today wouldnt dare say yes to an age restricted app would they!

England and Wales

Onboarding screenshots for the England and Wales Covid 19 Apple/Google Exposure notification app

Onboarding for England requires the first part of your PostCode. You cannot have two PostCodes say 'Home' and 'Work'. The risk area for your PostCode is displayed at the top of the app. Then there are six main menu items for functionality - Venue Check-in, a Symptoms checker, a web link to the latest Covid advice, an About the app page, a Test result submission form, and a control for Exposure notification settings called 'Contact tracing' which lets you pause exposure notifications. The beta had a 'book a test' option but that is gone from the menu, although it may be functionality that is now activated if you recieve an alert.

Scotland

Onboarding screenshots for the Scotland Covid 19 Apple/Google Exposure notification app

Onboarding for Scotland is simply a question of confirming age, answering the question 'Are you living in or visiting Scotland?' and then tapping 'Next' through a comprehensive reassuring explanation of what the app does and how it benefits you.

Looking through the functionality of the apps I can see that they do indeed contain an implementation of the Apple/Google Exposure notification Bluetooth specification, Cryptography specifciation and the Framework API.

The main screen of the England app tells you about the risk in your PostCode area (the first part of your PostCode) and pulses green when contact tracing is 'on'. Indeed you can dig in to the exposure log and see the (very uninteresting) exposure check logs themselves. Unfortunately this is just a graphic for eye candy. It doesn't really properly represent anything technical going on. The NHS Scotland app has a much better, cleaner design. It doesn't need to pulse like a 90's sonar screen saver.

Venue check-in in the England app lets you scan an NHS England produced QR code for a venue. I was able to create one for my business by filling in a form on the gov.uk website. It was emailed to me immediately. Venue Check in data is kept longer, for 21 days on your device. The app most likely looks up venue outbreaks and checks with this local data in order to notify an end-user of an affected venue. (Caveat - This is my supposition, and also it is outside the Apple/Google Exposure notification specification so it may be that the data is managed differently or that analytics are collected - check the App Store App Privacy information carefully).

The symptoms checker is easy to use and told me I am unlikely to have COVID-19, which is nice. I expect it has a path to book a test if you are symtomatic. No help here for the asymptomatic.

Read latest advice menu redirects to a website https://covid19.nhs.uk which is comprehensive. It duplicates a lot of what is in the About this app menu.

I dont have a test to enter to see what happens in this part of the app.

You can turn the Contact Tracing part of the app off on the home screen too, or of course using the Settings for your mobile phone.

Apple assured everyone that 'Exposure Logging' "Apps will receive approval based on a specific set of criteria designed to ensure they are only administered in conjunction with public health authorities, meet our privacy requirements, and protect user data.”

NHS England say that "If you test positive for coronavirus, you can choose to share your result anonymously. The NHS will then send alerts to other app users who have spent time near you, or in ‘close contact', over the last few days. These alerts will never identify you as an individual".

The venue check in feature is new so lets just check what that collects. The NHS England website notes that it will collect on your phone, some data about which venues you checked into and when. They are categorical that "The NHS and the government will not have access to any of this data. They cannot use the app to track your location, for law enforcement, or to monitor self-isolation and social distancing."

So we can hopefully be assured that the app doesn't collect our personal data. If you choose to give it for example by filling in a form that is your decision.

Conclusions - its time to get beyond the app. Delete it.

I no longer support using the app. The so called "pingdemic" is not a fault in the app at all, it is, I believe, a catastrophic failure in Government policy to bring the pandemic under control. Tight borders to slow or stop variants of the virus along with an effective test, trace and isolate system are both pre-reqisites to the app working well. The app should be the last line of defence in a system which has these controls. But because these controls are not working, instead it is the first line of defence after relying upon the vaccination of the entire eligible population. This, I believe, means that hundreds of thousands of people are being pinged and required to self isolate somewhat erroneously. Now that my family is double jabbed I can not see a justification for this and have deleted it.

Originally I gave my qualified support (such as it is) to these apps in a way I could not have done for the original NHS England predecessor app which would never have got through App Review due to its potential data grap. The Scotland app - protect.scot has a far better reassuring onboarding process and draws you in to the idea that you are helping yourself and others. The England app feels perfunctory and more of a burden. This just goes to show that user experience matters.

Nevertheless and somewhat reluctantly, I stand by my view that it is time to delete the covid apps. The long list of exceptions at recent sporting events and those recently announced for specific categories of people who have been pinged make a mockery of any scientific justification for its use. If the pingdemic continues the national journalists will headline on perceived failings in these apps will take the focus away from the failures of this government and the real pressing need to get a grip on the pandemic and show some leadership.

Note: This article has been updated in July 2021 from earlier versions which focused only on the app for England and Wales and examined the beta, and then from earlier in the pandemic with initial conclusions.