The NHS contact-tracing app will launch in England and Wales on September 24, Matt Hancock has announced, along with a new QR code system to help track which pubs, restaurants and hairdressers people go into.
Businesses will be encouraged to put up codes for customers in coming days, which will then record the visit on the user’s phone for 21 days.
Customers will be able to scan the QR codes in the NHS Covid-19 app when they visit a business instead of handing over contact details for the manual track and trace system.
The QR code strategy follows the success of a similar model used in China, where people get self-isolate alerts after someone who was in the same venue as them tests positive for Covid.
The new app’s launch comes after a series of delays and U-turns which saw the NHS ditch its original app in June after running into a series of technical problems.
Since then it has switched over to the Apple and Google model for a contact tracing app, which has a greater focus on privacy and sees all the details of users’ contacts and movements stored on their phone.
Alongside the QR code location tracking, the app will also use the Bluetooth connections on users’ smartphones to log when people come into contact close enough to potentially spread coronavirus.
The app will then alert users’ to self-isolate when someone recorded as having close contact with them tests positive for the virus.
The NHS has been trialling the new app since August in the Isle of Wight and the London Borough of Newham, with a NHS spokesman saying it had proved “highly effective” at tracking infections alongside a human test and trace system.
Announcing the new app, Health Secretary Mr Hancock said: “We need to use every tool at our disposal to control the spread of the virus including cutting-edge technology. The launch of the app later this month across England and Wales is a defining moment and will aid our ability to contain the virus at a critical time.
“QR codes provide an easy and simple way to collect contact details to support the NHS Test and Trace system.
“Hospitality businesses can now download posters for their premises ahead of the launch of the NHS Covid-19 app. This will allow the public to seamlessly check-in to venues using the app when it launches.
“It is vital we are using the NHS Test and Trace system to reach as many people as possible to prevent outbreaks and stop this virus in its tracks. This function will make it simple and easy so we can keep this virus under control.”
In the run-up to the release businesses are being asked to put up the QR code as part of their duty under Covid regulations to record the details of visiting customers.
The NHS said the data will then be used if there is an outbreak linked to a specific location to alert all people who recorded being there to self-isolate.
China has operated a similar system that sees people scan QR codes even when they get into specific train carriages and which has been credited with helping the country get control of its outbreak.
Other features the UK app will have include risk alerts letting people know the level of infection in their postcode and a symptom checker, which will help determine the likelihood a user has Covid and then direct them to the nearest place to get a test.
The app will also have an isolation countdown feature for people advised to self-isolate.
Simon Thompson the managing director of the NHS Covid-19 App, said: “My team have worked tirelessly to develop the new NHS COVID-19 app and we are incredibly grateful to all residents of the Isle of Wight, London Borough of Newham, NHS Volunteer Responders and the team that went before us; the learnings and insight have made the app what it is today.
“We are now giving businesses the time to prepare their venues ahead of the app becoming available across England and Wales. We are working closely to engage, educate and inform them about how the App works and how they can play their part.
“The QR system is a free, easy and privacy preserving way to check-in customers to venues, and we encourage all businesses to get involved and download and display the official NHS QR code posters.”
The new app comes after the NHS had to scrap its original version, which aimed to collect anonymised data into a centralised computer system to help ministers track how the virus was spreading.
However, developers were unable to get the Bluetooth tracking features working effectively in iPhones and the app was ditched in mid-June in favour of the Apple and Google model.
This version keeps the anonymous log of which phones have been in contact on the user’s devices and then accesses a decentralised database to periodically check if there has been contact with people who’ve tested positive for the virus.