Will the NHS app solve contact tracing at venues?

By Jim Preen, Director of Crisis Management at YUDU Sentinel

The NHS test-and-trace app, which is part of the government’s Rule of 6 legislation, is now up and running. The app features a QR code scanner to collect contact tracing data at venues.

According to the government website ‘designated venues now have a legal requirement to maintain records of customer contact details and display an official NHS QR code poster.’

Failure to comply could mean a fine of £1,000 which rises to £4,000 for repeat offenders.

The designated venues include:

  • Hospitality: including pubs, bars, restaurants and cafés
  • Tourism and leisure: including gyms, swimming pools, hotels, museums, cinemas, zoos and theme parks 
  • Close contact services: including hairdressers, facilities provided by local authorities, including town halls and civic centres (for events), libraries and children’s centres  

When someone enters a venue and scans the NHS QR code poster, the venue information is logged on the user’s phone. The device will check if users have been at that location at the relevant time and if the app finds a (Covid) match, users will get an alert anonymously with advice on what to do based on the level of risk.

So, is this the easy contact tracing solution that venues have been seeking? Not so fast.

Venue owners

Despite there being a legal requirement for businesses to display the NHS QR codes, there is no such requirement for punters to install the app on their phone.

Initially, take up has been quite good, but there may be some, as we will see in a moment, who want nothing to do with the app.

There are also technical issues: those with older phones may struggle to install the app as it requires handsets to have Android 6.0 (released 2015) or iOS 13.5 (released May 2020) and Bluetooth 4.0 or higher. The iPhone 6 and some of the latest Huawei handsets won’t work and, of course, some people may not have a smart phone at all.

All of which creates problems for venues, because whether their customers use the NHS app or not businesses still have a legal requirement to collect customer data. This means venues must have complementary system in place to satisfy their legal obligation. Landlords must know that just displaying the government QR codes is not enough.

Data security

By its own admission, the government recognises that for the app to work there must be widespread take up. Academics suggest that more than 60% of the population will need to download it for it to work effectively.

Although the government is at pains to stress the data collected on the app is secure there are concerns among the public about data protection and perhaps a nagging suspicion the government is tracking your every move.

Conspiracy theories

What follows is bordering on the murky world of conspiracy theories, but it has been suggested the app could be used by unscrupulous people to settle scores.

Got a beef against someone? Spend time with them, report via the app that you have Covid-19 thus forcing your frenemy to self-isolate. Have you visited a pub and been barred for anti-social behaviour? Report you have contracted the disease thus leaving open the possibility that the pub might be forced to shut down. All done by an unpleasant person who is able to remain anonymous.

Stretching credibility? Probably, but there’s no doubt It’s going to be a tough sell to get the public on board, especially as the government itself sees the app as part of a ‘digital diary’ tracking where you have been.

The government point out that while the contact data collected at venues is kept on your handset, users do have the ability to delete it. That said, it’s likely they are able to enter a venue name and time into the backend of the system and then search phones for a match and make the alert.

Back up

How well the government app works or how widely it is adopted by the public remains to be seen. For landlords, restaurant owners and the rest the law is clear: You must collect customer contact data. The government app has a role to play and it may help punters but will be of limited use to publicans. It’s not a game changer.

This may be unwelcome news, but amid all the Covid confusion it’s important to understand that venues need back up. And back up means having your own contact tracing solution.


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