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People across England and Wales are being urged to download the NHS COVID-19 app to help control the spread of coronavirus and protect themselves and their loved ones as case numbers rise.

According to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), the app is an important new tool to work alongside traditional contact tracing to help reduce the spread of the virus.

It will be available to those aged 16 and over in multiple languages. The coronavirus tracing app forms a central part of the NHS Test and Trace service in England and the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect programme – identifying contacts of those who have tested positive for coronavirus.

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As well as contact tracing, the app has a range of additional, enhanced features that DHSC says will help to reduce personal and public risk from COVID-19 as part of the wider testing and contact tracing service.

This includes an alert to inform users about the level of coronavirus risk in their postcode district; a QR check-in, which allows users to check-in at a venue and alerting them if they have recently visited somewhere they may have come into contact with someone who later tests positive for COVID-19; a symptom checker to see if people have coronavirus symptoms and whether they need to order a free test; help users book a free test through the app and get results to know whether they have COVID-19; and a timer feature for people who are told to self-isolate to help count down that period.

The COVID-19 tracing app was initially announced by DHSC on 18 June 2020. Now, the government will be running a major campaign to encourage mass download of the app, through a new advertisement on TV.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “We are at a tipping point in our efforts to control the spread of this virus. With infection rates rising we must use every tool at our disposal to prevent transmission, including the latest technology.

“We have worked extensively with tech companies, international partners, and privacy and medical experts – and learned from the trials – to develop an app that is secure, simple to use and will help keep our country safe.

“Today’s launch marks an important step forward in our fight against this invisible killer and I urge everyone who can to download and use the app to protect themselves and their loved ones.”

Some of the UK’s major mobile network operators, including Vodafone, Three, EE and O2, Sky and Virgin, have confirmed that all in-app activity will not come out of customers’ data allowance.

The contact tracing element of the app works by using low-energy Bluetooth to log the amount of time people spend near other app users, and the distance between them, so it can alert the individual if they have been close to later tests positive for COVID-19 – even if the people don’t know each other.

If the individual has been in close contact with a confirmed case, the app will advise them to self-isolate, as well as check symptoms, book a free test – if needed – and get test results.

According to the government, the app has been designed with user privacy in mind, so it tracks the virus, not people and uses the latest in data security technology to protect privacy. The system generates a random ID for an individual’s device, which can be exchanged between devices via Bluetooth (not GPS). These unique random IDs regenerate frequently to add an extra layer of security and preserve anonymity.

Additionally, the app does not hold personal information such as name, address or date of birth, and only requires the first half of the individual’s postcode to ensure local outbreaks can be managed. No personal data is shared with the government or the NHS.

From today, certain businesses in England are required by law to display NHS Test and Trace QR codes so customers with the NHS COVID-19 app can use them to check-in. QR codes will help businesses meet their legal requirement to log contact details and allow public health leads to send alerts based on whether people have checked in at venues.

The NHS Test and Trace team behind the app has worked closely with major technology companies, including Google and Apple, scientists within the Alan Turing Institute and Oxford University, Zuhlke Engineering, medical experts, privacy groups, at-risk communities and teams in countries across the world using similar apps – such as Germany, to develop an app that is safe, simple and secure.

Wales’ Health and Social Services Minister Vaughan Gething said: “The launch of the NHS COVID-19 app is an important part of Wales’ coronavirus response, bolstering our Test, Trace, Protect programme. The more people who download and use this app, the more it will help us to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We have worked closely with the app development team to ensure it works seamlessly across England and Wales, providing people with the right advice based on where they live. In Wales, the app will complement our existing contact tracing and testing services and will further support our co-ordinated response to COVID-19 at both a local and national level.

“I strongly encourage everyone in Wales to download and use the app to keep Wales safe.”

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