Prime minister Boris Johnson has said that the NHS Trace and Track app will “change people’s lives”. It was introduced in England on Thursday and is available to download now on Android and iOS, with people able to self-report their symptoms to the NHS to alert those who have been in contact with them. Theoretically, it would allow the country to move from coronavirus lockdown to more casual social distancing measures.
For the past month, it’s been trialled on the Isle of Wight – with arguably limited success. After a slow take-up, people have been tracking their symptoms since the 5th of May. An estimated 65 percent of people who could download the app did so. However, it was also tested on an island with an ageing population of 140,000, of which only 90,000 possess smartphones.
“It’s been really funny because we’re living in the 1950s down here so you’d expect us to be the last to get the technology, rather than the first,” says islander Bonnie, 23. “It’s been a bit of a novelty.”
Experts say that at least 60 percent of Britons need to download and use the app for it to be at all effective. With proper and effective use, the app is expected to reduce infections by between 5 and 15 percent. With the app launching today in the rest of the country, we spoke to people on the Isle of Wight who’ve been using the app about what to expect.
THE NHS TRACK AND TRACE APP IS... BASIC
The app itself is “low-tech” and “minimal”, according to multiple Islanders. “It’s something and nothing, it’s basic stuff,” says Steve, who is twice at-risk due to his age and his diabetes. “There’s only one question: do you feel ill or have the symptoms of COVID? If you don’t, you just close the app. That’s it.” There’s no functionality to log your individual symptoms – the symptoms they've chosen to list appear on the screen.
Some are concerned the app poses more questions to users than answers them. Sid, 21, is worried it's so rudimentary that people won’t take alerts that they've come into contact with someone who has symptoms seriously. “If it does tell you ‘you should isolate’, it’s like, how far away was I from this person? Are they actually really sick or just self-reporting incorrectly? What does 'coming into contact' mean if we’re all socially distancing anyway?”
The NHS Track and Trace coronavirus app. Photos: VICE staff
THERE'S NO DIFFERENTIATION BETWEEN THOSE WHO HAVE TESTED POSITIVE FOR CORONAVIRUS AND THOSE WHO HAVEN'T
You can’t record that you’ve tested positive for Coronavirus. All you can do is self-report symptoms. Steve uses both the NHS app and another COVID-tracking app King's College London launched for research. He says, "The London hospital app is much better. It asks ‘do you have any symptoms’ and ‘have you had a test?’ It feels like it's logging more necessary information, really."
YOU NEED TO HAVE BLUETOOTH ON ALL THE TIME
Rather than using 3G or 4G, the app uses bluetooth to track an individual’s whereabouts. This has to be kept on at all times. “If you ever turn your bluetooth off, like I do when I’m running out of battery to save charge or when I’m on a run, you get a notification that comes up saying that you need to have it on at all times for the app to work,” says Sid, 21, adding: “It’s a massive drain on your battery life, especially on my iPhone.” This has been a criticism of the technology since it launched.
DON'T EXPECT EVERYONE TO USE IT
In an era of 5G conspiracy theorists and Dominic Cummings insisting he didn't break or bend very clear governmental rules, it's understandable that many people will refuse to use the app. After all, it does log your whereabout data. “Most people I know are pretty supportive of it, and if they could get it on their phone, they did,” says Bonnie. “However, there were a couple of posts on Facebook I saw saying ‘The government are controlling you, don’t download the app’.”
DON'T EXPECT LOTS OF UPDATES OR ALERTS
On the Isle of Wight, no one is getting alerts that they’ve come into contact with people with coronavirus. The app is silent. “I was expecting to hear something,” says Olivia, 22. “I keep checking it but all it says is ‘the app is working properly’. My friend Louise is a volunteer at the hospital and is there pretty much everyday and she hasn’t had alerts, either.” Of course, this is likely due to the population being in lockdown and may change dramatically once we remove major restrictions on movement. Until then, only one person is known to have been updated with an alert that they need to self-isolate on the Isle of Wight – the girlfriend of local Tory MP Bob Seely.