UK contact-tracing plans: an NHS app and 18,000 health staff | Politics

NHS app

The NHS CV19 app will enable the public to report their symptoms and order a swab test online if available. The NHS has chosen to go with its own model rather than one proposed by Apple and Google, and hopes it will be ready in two to three weeks, though the timetable for rollout is unclear.

Once someone installs the app, it will start logging the distance between the user’s phone and others nearby that also have the app installed, using Bluetooth Low Energy. This anonymous log of how close they are to others will be stored securely on their phone.

If they become unwell with symptoms of Covid-19, they can choose to let the app inform the NHS. That will trigger an anonymous alert to other app users with whom they spent time over the previous few days. Those users will get an alert telling them they have been close to someone with the virus. It may advise them to self-isolate.


Although Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, claims we are on track for 100,000 tests a day by Thursday, the latest figures for 26 April show only 37,000 tests carried out.

There is no plan to test all contacts of people who have the virus. Prof Neil Ferguson’s modelling team at the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis said in their latest report on 23 April that “testing of contacts would require substantial test numbers and significant investment of laboratory and staff resources”.

There were 15,000 calls from people reporting potential Covid-19 symptoms every day to the NHS 111 helpline between 18 March and 16 April. Testing them and three contacts each, assuming a low number because of the lockdown, would require 60,000 tests to be done every day. So they are all likely to be told to self-isolate without testing.

Contact tracers

Hancock has talked of recruiting 18,000 contact tracers, but the scheme is still evolving, with input from regional directors of public health. Of these, the government has proposed 15,000 should be call handlers, so only 3,000 would be trained public health staff including environmental health officers and probably sexual health staff with experience of contact tracing and knowledge of their communities.

In early April, the government was accused of missing an opportunity after it failed to deploy 5,000 experienced contact tracing experts employed by councils to help limit the spread of coronavirus. According to the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the UK has at least 5,000 environmental health officers working in local councils nationwide but Public Health England said at the time it would use its own local health protection teams.

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