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An issue with the NHS COVID-19 app that’s causing iPhone and Android smartphone owners to receive a worrying “possible Covid-19 exposure” warning without follow-up has still not be rectified. The alerts have been plaguing users since the UK Department for Health launched the long-delayed application to smartphone owners in England and Wales.
Confused app users have taken to social media to complain about the notification, which reads “Possible Covid-19 exposure. Verifying exposure info. The app has accessed the date, duration and signal strength of this exposure.”
However, tapping on the notification, which surfaces on your smartphone lockscreen, simply loads the NHS COVID-19 app – with no additional information on what the “possible exposure” was referring to, when it took place, or whether you need to self-isolate. Scouring the system settings on your iOS or Android handset won’t reveal any additional information about what might have triggered the alert.
Despite the slightly disconcerting phrasing, officials claim these notifications do not always indicate that you’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. Instead, they describe the texts as “default messages” to prove that the system, which was co-developed by Google and Apple to work across the rival mobile operating systems, are to remind you that the functionality is working.
Apple and Google haven’t offered more details about why the notifications appear, what triggers them, and whether these notifications are commonplace with every coronavirus track and trace used worldwide – or whether it’s something to do with the programming used by the UK version.
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The only official guidance available on these notifications come courtesy of an answer buried on an FAQ sheet on the NHS website. It confirms these notifications, which has caused social media users a huge amount of concern, cannot be turned off. According to the UK Government, these notifications from the NHS app are “default messages” and – when received on their own – are not a signal that you’ll need to self-isolate for the required period. Instead, you will only need to self-isolate if you’re specifically told to do so by a second notification from the app.
The first notification, the one that reads “possible Covid-19 exposure. Verifying exposure info”, is sent when your smartphone registers that it has been close to someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus. However, you will only receive a second notification if a detailed examination of the data by the NHS app shows that they had a reasonable chance of passing on the virus to you.
If the risk is deemed to be minimal, you’ll never receive a second notification after the default “Verifying exposure info” message. If the risk-scoring algorithm employed by the NHS thinks there’s a reasonable chance that you might’ve picked up the virus, a second notification will appear on your iPhone or Android smartphone telling you to self-isolate.
There’s not much detail about how exactly the risk-scoring algorithm works, however, it’s clear that prolonged contact with someone who has the virus increases the risk of transmission. Other factors – like whether you’re indoors, or in a park – could also determine the likeliness that you’ll contract COVID-19.
The NHS COVID-19 app will also display important messages about your health when you open the app. If the message doesn’t appear when tapping on the notification, chances are, you’ve just experienced on these “default messages” and don’t need to take any further action.
The Department of Health and Social Care explains: “These are default notifications that come from Apple and Google. NHS Covid-19 app users only need to self-isolate if they get a notification directly from the app advising them to do so. The app uses Apple and Google Exposure Notifications plus a risk-scoring algorithm to filter out ‘false alarms’ based on distance and time. This is the same Apple and Google Exposure Notification software used on covid apps in other countries.”
If NHS determines that you need to self-isolate because of a high risk of exposure, it says that the NHS COVID-19 app will send you an alert that states how long you’ll need to self-isolate. Not only that, the app will provide a countdown timer. “When you reach the end of your self-isolation period, you will receive a notification with a link to the latest advice for you,” it clarified on Twitter following the confusion.
According to the Northern Ireland Department of Health, these phantom notifications were an issue that occurred with the initial roll-out of its version of the track-and-trace app, dubbed StopCOVID NI, which predates the version for England and Wales. However, the problem was solved as the software was updated to the latest API provided by Apple and Google, which stops these notifications. It’s unclear when the app for England and Wales will be updated to the latest APIs.
Apple and Google’s cross-platform solution is designed to preserve users’ privacy – while still allowing Android and iOS-powered smartphones to keep tabs on who you’ve been close to. The so-called Exposure Notification API uses Bluetooth Low Energy to determine whether – at some point during the last two weeks – you’ve passed someone who later test positive for the novel coronavirus. All of this happens anonymously to restrict the amount of health and location data stored on iPhone and Android owners.
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