A coronavirus contact tracing app has launched across England and Wales at what the Health Secretary has called “a tipping point” in the fight against coronavirus.
The rollout follows months of delay and questions about its effectiveness in the face of mixed results from other countries which have already deployed such apps.
As of Thursday evening, the app had been downloaded more than one million times by Android users, according to the Google Play Store.
The total figure is likely to be higher when iPhone downloads are included, but Apple does not provide similar figures for app downloads.
Both Scotland and Northern Ireland have already introduced their own individual contact tracing apps, which users can switch to should they visit either country, following the delay of the original NHS software.
NHS Test and Trace, which is responsible for the service, said the app was used to send alerts to users during a trial period on the Isle of Wight and in the London borough of Newham, after people had tested positive.
The latest version was piloted among residents of both areas as well as NHS volunteers from mid-August, after the first app was marred by technical issues and eventually scrapped.
It comes at a critical time for the UK, with confirmed cases of Covid-19 on the rise daily.
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said the app’s launch came at a “tipping point in our efforts to control the spread of this virus”.
He told BBC Breakfast that the more people who download the new coronavirus app across England and Wales “the better”, adding it was good “for your community”.
“The more people who download this app, the more effective it will be,” he said.
As the software is voluntary, its success will also depend heavily on how many people choose to download and use it.
An advertising campaign to promote the app will appear on television on Thursday evening with the strapline, “Protect your loved ones. Get the app”.
Mr Hancock added the “vast majority” of people had the right software, adding that some may need to upgrade their phone’s operating system.
The new app requires Apple users to be running iOS 13.5, which was rolled out in May and works on the iPhone 6s, released in 2015, or newer handsets, while Android users need to be running at least Android version 6.0, which was also first released in 2015.
The Government said that anyone unable to use the app should continue to use traditional contact tracing services provided by NHS Test and Trace or, NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect.
The app is powered by an Apple and Google-developed system, using Bluetooth to keep an anonymous log of people a user has been close to.
It does this by exchanging randomised keys while the Bluetooth signal strength measures proximity.
If someone falls ill, they can tell the app, which will then ping their keys to a central server and in turn send them off to all app users in search of a match.
Should the system determine a person as a close contact, they will be automatically be sent a notification and issued with further guidance.
A QR code scanning feature is available, allowing people to check in to venues they visit and easily share their contact details for human tracing efforts.
Some 160,000 businesses have already downloaded QR codes for use in their facilities.
Baroness Dido Harding, executive chairwoman of England’s NHS Test and Trace Programme, said: “We want to make it as easy as possible for everyone to engage with England’s NHS Test and Trace service.
“The NHS Covid-19 app enables the majority of people with a smartphone to find out if they are at risk of having caught the virus and need to self isolate, order a test if they have symptoms, and access the right guidance and advice.
“The features of this app, including QR code check-in at venues, work alongside our traditional contact tracing service and will help us to reach more people quickly in their communities to prevent further spread of the virus.
“This is a welcome step in protecting those around us.”
The UK’s major network operators, including Vodafone, Three, EE and O2, giffgaff, Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile and Virgin Mobile have agreed to “zero-rate” data charges incurred by all in-app activity, meaning they will not be charged for using it.