If you haven’t already downloaded the NHS Covid-19 app on your iPhone or Android, you’re running out of excuses. The smartphone app, which is designed to track the spread of the disease and warn people when they’ve been in close proximity with someone who was infected and need to self-isolate, has undergone a number of changes lately. As restrictions across the UK started to lift, a change in the rules now requires every visit to have the NHS Covid-19 app and use the ‘Check In’ feature when entering a restaurant, pub, shop, gym, hairdresser or business.
Previously, a single member of any group of friends or family could ‘Check In’ – usually with a QR code. This was enough to permit the entire group to enter. However, every individual member will now have to scan the QR code to register their visit with the NHS smartphone app. The change is designed to speed up contact tracing. If someone with coronavirus is found to have visited the venue at the same time, the NHS track and trace will be able to issue alerts to everyone in the venue… not just one person from each group. It’s also possible to sign-in physically with the venue if a member of the group doesn’t own a smartphone.
As well as clocking up a list of every venue you’ve visited in recent weeks, the NHS Covid-19 app is poised to become an even more important part of everyday life.
That’s because Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has confirmed that the Government plans to upgrade the existing NHS Covid-19 app, which has already clocked 10,000,000 downloads on Android phones alone, to function as a vaccine passport. This will be shown when travelling internationally to prove that you’ve had the required Covid-19 vaccines.
Digital Certificates will be accepted as evidence that you’ve had a Covid-19 jab and/or received a negative test result, proposals from the European Union have confirmed. For those hoping to travel beyond UK shores this summer to Europe, this is a promising sign. But rather than create an entirely new smartphone app that functions as a Digital Certificate for travel, the Transport Secretary revealed the current plan to add the functionality into the existing NHS Covid-19 app.
In an interview on Sky News, Grant Shapps confirmed: “In terms of vaccine certification, I can confirm we are working on an NHS application, actually it will be the NHS app that is used for people when they book appointments with the NHS and so on, to be able to show you’ve had a vaccine or you’ve had testing. I’m working internationally with partners across the world to make sure that system can be internationally recognised, as that’s the way forward.”
It comes a few days after the Spanish tourism minister, Fernando Valdes Verelst, told an international summit that his country plans to welcome back tourists – including those from the UK – from June 2021.
It seems anyone hoping that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that “all restrictions” across England will be lifted by June 21, 2021 would mean that you could uninstall the NHS Covid-19 app from your iPhone or Android smartphone. Whether it’s tracking the rate of infection across the country – known as the R number – or being quizzed at the border before heading out on a two-week summer holiday, it seems increasingly likely that the NHS Covid-19 app is here to stay for the foreseeable.
The news comes a few days after political blog Guido Fawkes uncovered a job listing from the Department of Health and Social Care to help develop “digital and non-digital options to enable UK residents to assert their Covid status, including both vaccination history and test results.” Working with the NHSX team, which is behind the NHS Covid-19 app, the role will be based in either Leeds or London.
Here’s hoping that whenever these digital vaccine certificates are finished, the roll-out goes better than the last planned update to the NHS Covid-19 app. Last month, ahead of the re-opening of non-essential retail and outdoor dining, the NHSX team had planned to launch a feature-packed update on Android and iOS. However, Apple and Google blocked the update from rolling out in England and Wales because the flagship new feature broke the terms and conditions of the contact-tracing technology developed by the two Californian firms.
The Department Of Health had planned for the update to roll out to coincide with the new rules in England and Wales from April 12, 2021. The team had coded the update to the NHS Covid-19 app to upload a backlog of their venue check-ins, which are handled with the large QR codes outside shops, pubs, and restaurants if they tested positive. This information, which would track which venues they had visited while potentially being contagious with the virus, would be used to warn others.
However, Apple and Google have explicitly banned this functionality. These limits were put in place from the start by the two US tech companies.
The problem with the latest update from the Department of Health was that it allowed the Government to receive a history of your movements. By sharing the venue check-in information after a positive test, the Government would be able to see your recent movements in explicit detail, from the shops you visited that morning to the restaurants and pubs. This is something that Apple and Google do not want their technology used for.
While the system is able to alert users who have been in close proximity with someone who later tests positive – that information is not shared with any other organisations or governments.
In order to use the system developed by Apple and Google – which is made available for free, health authorities have to agree not to collect any location data using the contact-tracking software. After all, it’s easy to see how this data could be used maliciously by governments and law enforcement across the globe.
Since the latest update submitted to Apple and Google for the NHS Covid-19 app broke these rules, iPhone and Android users did not receive the update as planned. Instead, Apple and Google continue to make the previous version available in the App Store and Google Play Store, respectively.
When questioned why the terms and conditions of the technology were swerved, the Department of Health declined to discuss how the misstep occurred. Instead, a spokesperson told the BBC: “The deployment of the functionality of the NHS Covid-19 app to enable users to upload their venue history has been delayed. This does not impact the functionality of the app and we remain in discussions with our partners to provide beneficial updates to the app which protect the public.”
Scotland has avoided the block because it offers two apps for the public. While Protect Scotland uses the privacy-focused system from Apple and Google, it also offers Check In Scotland, which is built on its own system that shares venue histories with the authorities.
The UK Government initially avoided Apple and Google’s free-to-use contact-tracing system because of its focus on privacy. By developing its own rival system, the UK Government wanted to keep the location data from smartphone owners.
The planned app, which cost £12 million and took three months to develop, could not accurately detect contact between iPhone and Android, due to the limitations around Bluetooth imposed on the operating system by Google and Apple. This restriction is designed to stop applications in the background (i.e. not displayed on the screen at all times) from constantly checking Bluetooth connections to keep tabs on nearby users.
This is a privacy concern – do you really want Facebook to keep track of all the people you've passed in the street today, for example? However, the restriction is also designed to stop serious battery life drain. Unfortunately, the feature prevented the NHS app from finding 25 per cent of Android phones and 96 percent of iPhone owners.
As such, it was scrapped and the UK Government used the freely available – albeit, more limited due to the restrictions on location data – option from Apple and Google.
The UK wasn't the only country to reject the privacy-focused approach developed by Apple and Google, Germany, Italy and Denmark also attempted to create their own system that would work as effectively as the one created by the Silicon Valley companies behind the operating system.
Written by David Minister
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