Coronavirus: Northern Ireland contact tracing app to launch next week

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A coronavirus contact tracing app for Northern Ireland will be launched next week, the health committee has been told.

Dan West from the Department of Health said the release of Stop Covid NI was supported by the executive.

The app will supplement the phone-based contact tracing programme already in place.

Northern Ireland will be the first part of the UK to have a contact tracing app.

The Republic of Ireland’s app launched earlier in July.

Both apps have been designed by the company Nearform.

Mr West, a chief digital information officer at the Department of Health, said the NI app would notify close contacts automatically.

It would also identify people at risk of infection who would be impossible to trace through the traditional method.

The app could launch as soon as 29 July.

It comes as the Northern Ireland Executive announced a further easing of lockdown restrictions from Friday.

‘Bluetooth handshake’

After a positive Covid-19 test result, a person will receive a unique code by text message.

That message will invite the person to enter the code if they use the app.

Entering the code will trigger a “Bluetooth handshake”, allowing the app to notify any other user who has been nearby for long enough to be at risk of infection.

“There will be some people who won’t be able to or won’t want to use the app, and that’s okay,” Mr West said.

“The more people who do use it, the more protection this will provide to the whole community. We can say that for sure.”

The app will be intended for over-18s initially, because of a conflict between data protection laws and the need for identifiable safeguarding consent.

Dr Eddie O’Neill from the Health and Social Care Board is meeting the children’s commissioner, the information commissioner’s office and the Children’s Law Centre to find a way through that.

Health Minister Robin Swann previously said his department was working with its counterpart in the Republic of Ireland.

The ambition was to have the two systems work in tandem, so information about contacts who need to be traced can be shared by both governments.

The contact tracing programme has been operational in Northern Ireland since mid-May.

The great coronavirus-tracing apps mystery

It involves people with a positive test result being contacted by phone.

The people they have been within 2m of for 15 minutes or more are called and advised about isolating or being tested if they have symptoms.

The app is an add-on to that, to help with contact tracing, and alert those who may not be easily contacted.

Mr West said the development and operation of the app in Northern Ireland “is orders of magnitude cheaper than the efforts in England to develop their app so far”.

He said it would cost less than £1m to build and operate.

The UK government is working on developing an app for use in the rest of the country.

In England an NHS team spent four months and nearly £12m developing an app which was trialled on the Isle of Wight but did not work as planned.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock then announced the new focus would be on a decentralised app using the Google Apple toolkit – but that was unlikely to be ready for months.


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