The NHS coronavirus contact tracing app is finally available for Android and iOS users living in England and Wales after months of delays. The software is designed to help contain the spread of Covid-19 by alerting users if they have been in close contact with someone who has since tested positive. Until now, the NHS Track and Trace system has relied on people handing over their contact information, including name and mobile number, when booking tables in restaurants, taking part in gym classes, or ordering in their local pub.
With the app installed, smartphone owners will be automatically sent a notification and issued with further guidance if they’ve been in the same venue, public transport, or in close proximity outside, without someone who tested positive for the infection. Unfortunately, the so-called Exposure Notification feature that enables iPhones to anonymously keep tabs on the other iPhone owners in your surroundings – and alert you if one of them later tests positive for coronavirus – was only introduced in iOS 13.5.
This rolled out worldwide back in May 2020, so anyone who keeps their iPhone regularly updated should now be running iOS 13.5 or newer.
However, iOS 13.5 is not compatible with iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus or older. So anyone with an iPhone 5, iPhone 5S, iPhone 4 or older will be unable to use the contact tracing aspect of the new software. To do that, you’ll need to buy an iPhone 6S or more recent handset.
Owners of these hugely-popular smartphone models have taken to social media to voice their anger about the required update. Since iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus cannot update to iOS 13.5 or newer, these handsets will not be able to warn their owners about anyone who has been within their vicinity who has tested positive. And iPhone 6 owners who test positive won’t be able to alert others about their diagnosis using the Exposure Notification API.
In its listing on the Apple App Store, the NHS app states: “It is the fastest way of knowing when you’re at risk from Coronavirus. The quicker you know, the quicker you can alert your loved ones, and your community. The more of us that use it, the better we can control coronavirus. The app runs on proven software developed by Apple and Google, designed so that nobody will know who or where you are. And you can delete your data, or the app, at any time.”
One Twitter user, with more than 26,000 followers posted: “Tried to download the @NHSCovid19app on my phone, an iPhone 6. Won’t work. “This application requires iOS 13.5 or later.” So, only people with phones less than three years old can use it. This is what the Tories call a “world-beating” system. Well done, @MattHancock, you genius.”
Another voiced similar frustration: “Can’t install it. This application requires iOS 13.5 or later. iPhone 6 and on 12.4.8. Can’t afford to get a new phone. And I expect many people will be in the same situation as they will have hand me downs! Absolute joke!”
“Unbelievable. Only works on IOS 13.5 and older which means you need a new phone. Won’t work on the majority of folks phones,” one social media user posted.
One Twitter user bemoaned: “Would be quite happy to download the NHS track and trace app but it’s only for iOS 13.5 which isn’t available for my iPhone 5s. Wonder how many users that rules out?”
Dozens of similar messages can be found as users try to download the app and discover the limitations. Apple keeps its smartphone up-to-date with the latest operating system for much longer than rival manufacturers. Samsung, Sony and Google promise to keep their priciest handsets updated with the latest software for three years after it launches. In contrast, iPhone 6S, which first launched in September 25, 2015, is compatible with the latest version of iOS, iOS 14, which launched last week.
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 Government wanted to create its own app to keep tabs on more of the data tracked by the app, including the approximate locations of users with infections. This would allow resources to be redirected to coronavirus hotspots, the Government argued. However, privacy advocates warned of the dangers of storing location data – as well as names, contact information and medical information – in a single centralised location.
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.