England starts trial of new COVID-19 contact-tracing app

The Apple-Google tech replaces a now scrapped centralised app

England’s new, decentralised version of its contact-tracing app will enter its public trial phase today, two months after the previous app was scrapped by Test and Trace programme head Baroness Dido Harding.

The new contact-tracing app, based on Google and Apple’s jointly-developed API, is being trialled on the Isle of Wight, although it is already in use in other regions of the UK, such as Northern Ireland, and in countries across the EU.

The model was the initial choice of software at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, until it was snubbed by the government in late April in favour of a centralised model. This was also trialled on the Isle of Wight in early May, before being cancelled a month later after it was discovered that the app could only pick up 4% of other iPhones it came in contact with.

The new software has been designed to monitor distance between people with the help of their smartphones, alerting users if they had been in close proximity to another person for a set period of time which could heighten the risk of contagion. If one user later tests positive for COVID-19, the other person is to be alerted to the fact even before they begin showing symptoms, lowering the chances of passing on the virus to others.

What is more, users who go out to public places, such as pubs, will also be asked to scan a QR barcode upon entrance, in order to make it easier to later alert them if they had visited a location linked to multiple infections.

Unlike the previous, centralised version, Apple and Google both claim their API is able to pick up 99% of smartphones it comes in contact with.

However, the new app is already facing significant challenges. One such issue is faulty distance estimates, which translates into smartphones wrongly recording users standing within 6 feet of one another. This could lead to a higher number of contagion alerts being sent, forcing users to isolate when there is no need to do so, as well as potentially causing emotional distress.

Even if the issue is resolved and the app positively passes the trial, the date of the rollout is not yet known. IT Pro has attempted to contact the Department of Health and Social Care to see how long the trial will last and whether the app is still estimated to launch in winter.

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