The UK COVID tracing app is finally here after months of delays.

It's available for iPhone and Android - although there are phones in both camps that won't be able to run the app.

You've probably heard a lot about COVID tracking apps and how our phones will be able to alert us if we have been near someone who'd had a diagnosis of COVID-19. What you may be wondering is whether your privacy will be forfeited in order for these apps to work and whether there is an app on your phone that you are now expected to use. Here's some clarity.

Should you download the COVID track and trace app?

Yes. It's our best chance of getting a warning about the possibility of spreading COVID before we start to experience symptoms. With this knowledge we can avoid passing the virus on to our friends and family. But it will only work if enough people download and use the app.

Prior to the arrival of the COVID track and trace app if someone received a positive test result that indicated they were infected with COVID-19 they were expected to alert contact tracers with details of people they had come into contact with - family, friends and co-workers. Then contact tracers would contact those people to let them know they should self-isolate.

The issue is that if an infected person had visited a grocery store or travelled on a bus it is a lot harder to locate the people they have come into contact with. In that case the data provided by the phone will help contact tracers locate people who might be infected.

However, people do have concerns, such as whether the app will drain battery or use up their data, and whether the app will allow access to private data. We address these concerns below, as well as explaining how to use the app, how COVID-19 track and trace app works, and how you can remove the app and data associated with it if you wish to.

How to get the COVID app on iPhone

The app won't automatically install itself on your iPhone (despite conspiracy theories from earlier this year) you will need to download it from the iOS App Store.

You can search for 'NHS COVID-19' in the store, but beware that there is a similarly named Scottish version of the app (which of course you will want to download if you are Scottish). If you are English or Welsh then the app you want is this one, called: NHS COVID-19.

However, if you have an iPhone 6 or older you will not be able to install and run the app as it requires iOS 13.5 or later.

There are also a lot of Android handsets that won't be able to run the app.

There is some concern that this means a lot of people will not be able to install the app on their smartphone.

The reason the app requires iOS 13.5 is that Apple's APIs (the ExposureNotificationFramework) arrived on iPhones with iOS 13.5. The ability to track and trace simply isn't possible on older handsets, unless Apple releases an update for them. More on Apple's API below.

When you first use the app you will have to confirm that you are over 16. Under 16s aren't officially supposed to use the app.

How to use the iPhone COVID tracking app

Now you have the app the next step is to set it up.

  1. Before you start using the app turn on COVID-19 Exposure Notifications in Settings on your iPhone. Open Settings.
  2. Select Exposure Notifications.
  3. Now tap on Turn On Exposure Notifications.
  4. On the page explaining how your iPhone can alert you if you have been exposed to COVID-19 Tap on Continue.
  5. Select your Country.
  6. Now open the app you downloaded from the App Store above.
  7. The first time you use the app you will be prompted to enter the first part of your postcode. This is the only data the app has relating to you. The app needs your postcode district in order to provide public health advice for your area. Why add Postcode COVID app
  8. Next you will need to enable COVID-19 Exposure Logging and Notifications. Tap on Enable.
  9. If you believe you have Coronavirus symptoms you can enter them in the app. If necessary the app will recommend you get a test.
  10. If the app determins you should get a COVID test it will provide you with a link to the website where tests can be booked.
  11. Regardless of whether you can get a test you should self isolate if you might have symptoms of Coronavirus.
  12. By confirming that you have a symptom in the app it will begin a countdown of 10 days for isolation. This will not alert anyone to the possibility that you have COVID.
  13. If you receive a postive COVID result tap on Enter test result. You will be asked to enter the code you received from the testing service (although if the booking went through the app it should appear automatically.) More on using the Check Symptoms tool below.

The app will now be active and scanning. You will see your area risk level - which in the UK will either be Medium or High.

What is the risk in my area COVID

What will happen if I use the COVID Track & Trace app?

The app will send you an alert if you have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

You will need to enable notifications in settings for this to happen.

  • Go to: Settings > Exposure Notifications.

Turn on Notification for COVID

You can view Exposure alerts in the app or in Notification Centre on your iPhone.

Should you receive a notification taking a test and getting a negative result shouldn't mean that you no longer need to isolate as you may still develop symptoms. The test will not pick up COVID before you are symptomatic. 

The app will also help you warn others you have come in to contact with should you report that you have had a positive COVID test result.

The app does not collect any location data beyond the the first part of your postcode so the NHS can plan your local NHS response. We discuss the privacy issues in more detail below.

When is someone considered exposed?

The app uses an algorithm that determines when an alert should be sent.

This is based on the following parameters:

  • If you were within 2 meters of someone for 5 minutes this is worth 300 points.
  • If you were from 2 to 4 meters of someone for five minutes it is worth 150 points.

Points are combined and if your encounters with the person with the positive test result amount to 900 or more you will get an alert.

So if you were within two meters of a person with a positive COVID result for a total of 15 minutes in a day they you will get an alert.

And if you were between 2 and 4 meters from them for half an hour you will get an alert.

If you were more than 4 meters away from someone who tested positive this will not trigger a warning or be included in the calculations above.

Based on the technology being used a user must be in the other person's Bluetooth range for at least five minutes. Longer times of up to 30 minutes are recorded in five minute intervals.

The distance can be recorded based on the signal strength of the Bluetooth connection - the stronger the signal, the smaller the distance. This is not a very exact distance measurement.

If someone you came in to contact with in the past 28 days gets a COVID diagnosis - or reports to the app that they are experiencing symptoms - you will receive a notification.

iPhone in coffee shop

Will the COVID app drain my battery?

For the tracing app to work, you'll be asked to allow Bluetooth and Notifications. This has lead to concerns that it will drain the battery if the app is scanning in the background.

The app uses low energy Bluetooth to perform a digital handshake when your iPhone comes into contact with another device running the app.

We've been using the app all day and haven't experienced any abnormal battery drain.

What else can the COVID tracking app do?

As well as notifying you of exposure to Coronavirus the app can be used to check in at venues, check your symptoms, and provide a countdown for your isolation should you be advised to quarantine.

Below we will run through how to check symptoms and how to scan QR codes.

How to enter COVID symptoms and book a test

If you have any symptoms the app can help you determine if they could be COVID, flu or the common cold.

The app will ask you to select the symptoms that apply to you have (such as a high temperature, a new continuous cough, change to sense of smell or taste.

The app states that "If you don't have any of these symptoms there is no need for you to do anything right now".

Should you have one of those symptoms the app will ask you more questions, such as when you first started experiencing the symptoms. Add the date if you know it.

The app will request that you isolate and will suggest you book a test.

There is a button to press to book a free test, this redirects you from the app to the website where you will have to enter your personal details.

Having confirmed to the app that you have a symptom of Coronavirus it will ask you to self isolate and the app will start to count down 10 days.

Isolate Covid Can't get test

Nobody will be alerted to the fact that you are isolating or have symptoms. The alerts will only be sent if you have confirmed in the app that you have received a positive test (that's assuming you can actually get a test in the first place!)

If you receive a postive COVID result you will need to enter it in the app. Tap on Enter Test Result and enter the code you received from the testing service (if the booking went through the app it should appear automatically.)

If your app starts counting down for isolation and you believe that you don't have COVID (or you are unable to confirm that you don't have COVID), follow the steps below to remove and reinstall the app.

How to scan QR codes

If you have eaten in a restaurant (perhaps during the days of Eat Out To Help Out) you will have seen QR codes that we were encouraged to scan in order to log our contact information so that it could be used to trace us if a Coronavirus case was traced to the venue.

Prior to the arrival of the app you could scan the QR code by switching on the Camera app and holding the iPhone up to the code. Then a linked website could be opened for you to enter your data.

The process in the app is similar - but this time your data is better protected.

  1. In the app if you want to check into a venue tap on Venue Check-in
  2. The first time you will need to confirm that the app can use your camera.
  3. Hold the iPhone so that you can see the QR code in the screen.
  4. You will automatically be checked in via the app (which crucially means you will not be sharing your data with the business).

The app will let you know you are checked in.

What the COVID tracing app can't do

Beyond confirming your area's risk level it won't give you any information about cases in your area, but you may receive updates based on your postcode's risk level.

If you'd like to get more information about cases in your area you might like to check out the In Your Area app, which includes a Coronavirus section that provides a useful insight to new positives in the past seven days.

How many covid cases near me

Another useful app is the COVID-19 Symptoms Study, which now includes maps of the UK that estimates how many positive cases are ongoing in those locations.

If you are interested in seeing COVID data on a map, read about how to use Google Maps to see details of COVID incidences near you: How to see COVID-19 cases on a map.

How to stop the NHS COVID app tracking you

If you want to stop the COVID app from tracing and tracking then you can do so from within the app.

  1. Open the app.
  2. Tap on the slider beside Contact Tracing.
  3. This will offer to turn off Contact Tracing for 4 hours, 8 hours or 12 hours.

This will be a useful feature for nurses and other people who's jobs mean that they will come into contact with people who have Coronavirus, however because they will presumably have adequate PPE their chance of infection should be minimised.

If you decide you don't want to use the COVID Track and Trace app for some reason you can delete the COVID-19 app from your device. This will remove the data associated with you held in the app.

You also need to go to settings to turn off Exposure Notifications. This will remove any other associated data from your iPhone.

Should you later want to reinstall the app you can do so. However, when we initially tried to do this and reinstalled the app it was no longer able to run - it suggested another app was using the data.

It transpired that this was because we hadn't Turned Off Exposure Notifications after deleting the app previously. Doing so fixed the problem and now the app is running again.

How is Apple involved with COVID tracing?

Apple partnered with Google to develop contact tracing technology for a programming interface that can be used by COVID-19 contact tracing apps. The application programming interface (API) will be available to public health authorities and governments to develop their COVID-19 tracing apps.

Apple and Google's solution uses Bluetooth technology. Phones emit low energy Bluetooth signals and when another phone comes in to contact the phones will perform a digital handshake. (It's similar to the way that Apple is able to trace lost devices for the Find My app).

Google announced further details about its API on 4 May making a version of its Exposure Notifications API available via Github.

Apple's APIs (the ExposureNotificationFramework) arrived on iPhones with iOS 13.5. This is why the app cannot run on iPhones older than the iPhone 6S.

This doesn't mean that a contact tracing app will suddenly appear on your device. You still have to download the specific app.

Both Apple and Google have restrictions in place that mean the apps that use the APIs and the data those apps are able to gather will be limited. Apple emphasises that its solution will be implemented while "maintaining strong protections around user privacy".

iPhone in public

How is our data kept private?

When it comes to protecting data, Google and Apple set high requirements which will be popular with users. However, the health authorities must also agree to the restrictions and in the UK - at least initially - the authorities weren't prepared to abide by Apple and Google's rules. However, that stance has now changed (more on that below).

Strict rules apply, which should mean that only official apps made by or for health authorities are able to use the data. These apps will have to meet certain privacy, security and data protection requirements - even Apple and Google will have no access to the data.

Google's Terms of Service for developers indicates that the features may only be used for the purpose of combating COVID-19. The specifications from Apple are not yet known, but will probably be very similar.

There are a number of restrictions on data protection that developers have to accept:

  • The user must be asked for consent and must not be asked for personal data.
  • It must also be possible for the user to uninstall the app and switch off notifications.
  • The collection of data on religion, age, sexual orientation and other social groups is not allowed.
  • There are restrictions when dealing with the data recorded via Bluetooth, most of which should remain on the device - only the diagnostic key can be accessed by the app.
  • No additional data such as device IDs may be requested, only data for the purposes of the app may be collected.
  • Third-party services, such as analytics, may not be integrated.

Apple says it will shut down the system when it is no longer needed and that this can be done on a regional basis.

However, it is required that the app provide the user with information about the next steps after contacting an infected person. As a result apps will be able to provide users with information about the next steps if they have been in contact with an infected person.

There is a significant difference at this stage between how the Apple/Google version works and how the UK government had initially hoped their app would work. The Apple/Google version was originally intended to perform the contact tracing on the iPhone rather than upload the information to a central server, which could have been a security risk. Apple and Google's method will protect privacy and lower the risk of data falling into the wrong hands.

History of the COVID-tracing app in the UK

In the UK a centralised app was originally being built by the NHS. This app didn't use Apple and Google's APIs. It seemed that the UK wanted to be able to have access to the data gathered (which Apple and Google's APIs wouldn't allow). The government had said that that would give it a useful insight into how COVID-19 is spreading, but privacy advocates weren't happy.

That app was being tested on the Isle of Wight with a view to being launched at some point in May. However the launch never happened.

Apparently the original app was able to judge the distance between two users, but wasn't good at identifying iPhones - it was only capturing details from 4% of iPhones compared to 75% of Android handsets.

The Apple/Google option, on-the-other-hand, logged 99% of Androids and iPhones. However, there are still issues - apparently its distance calculations are weaker.

The UK isn't the only government to have made an about turn and decided to switch to the Apple/Google option - Germany, Italy, Denmark, Latvia and Switzerland have also.

And a former Apple executive (Simon Thompson) was said to have taken over the project, as reported by the BBC.

The government had wanted a centralised tracing app that would provide data about the infected persons phone and those they came into contact with. The Apple/Google version will only provide data about the infected persons phone and that will be limited to protect their privacy. In the Apple/Google version the contact matching takes place on the phone itself, while the government had wanted that information to be uploaded to a national database.

One advantage of using the Apple/Google solution is that the UK app could work with apps in other countries.