If you’ve installed the NHS COVID-19 app on your iPhone or Android smartphone and received a notification that seems to suggest you’ve been close to someone who has tested positive for the virus – there might not be any reason to panic. 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.”
Tapping on the notification launches the Track and Trace app, known as NHS COVID-19, but with no further information on the “possible Covid-19 exposure”. Scouring the system settings on your iOS or Android handset won’t reveal any additional information about what might have triggered the alert.
Writing on social media, one person asked: “Matt Hancock can you please explain/ clarify confusing and scary ‘exposure notifications’ that don’t come with instructions to self-isolate? My daughter, a med student, woke up to a notification and is now terrified in case she infects others or gets ill. Please sort this out! We need clarity, not more fear and confusion!”
According to the 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.
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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 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.
The NHS COVID-19 app available on Android and iPhone now is the second attempt at a contact-tracing app from the National Health Service.
The first attempt to develop a contract tracing app was scrapped after Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed that it could not accurately detect data from smartphones. This is because Apple and Google design their operating systems to stop apps in the background (i.e. not displayed on the screen at all times) from constantly checking Bluetooth connections to keep tabs on nearby users.
This is a privacy concern – do you really want Facebook to keep track of all the people you’ve passed in the street today, for example? However, the restriction is also designed to stop serious battery life drain. Unfortunately, the feature prevented the NHS app from finding 25 per cent of Android phones and 96 percent of iPhone owners.
The UK wasn’t the only country to reject the privacy-focused approach developed by Apple and Google, Germany, Italy and Denmark also attempted to create their own system that would work as effectively as the one created by the Silicon Valley companies behind the operating system.
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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