The government has been forced to upgrade its NHS Covid app to reassure smartphone users worried by alert messages suggesting they have been exposed to the virus, HuffPost UK can reveal.
The NHS app, downloaded by more than 16 million Brits since its launch nearly three weeks ago, has been sending alerts to people with the tag line “Possible Covid-19 Exposure”.
But in many cases, the notification simply disappeared once clicked on and was not followed by any official confirmation of contact with others who carry coronavirus.
Now the department of health and social care has admitted that the so-called “ghost notifications” are a glitch caused by Apple and Google’s own bluetooth technology on their phones and are a default privacy setting that it cannot change.
However, following widespread concern it has decided from Tuesday October 13 to amend the app to send a follow-up notification making clear that the message can be ignored in cases where a close contact has not been strong enough.
The follow-up message from the app will read: “COVID-19 Exposure Check Complete. Don’t worry, we have assessed your risk and there is no need to take action at this time. Please continue to stay alert and follow the latest advice on social distancing.”
For those who have been deemed to have been close contact with someone who later tests positive for the virus, the message from the app will read “The app has detected that you have been in contact with someone who has coronavirus. Please stay at home and self-isolate to keep yourself and others safe.”
A red countdown timer clock will then animate within the app, listing clearly how many days of home quarantine are advised.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “NHS Covid-19 app users only need to self-isolate if they get a notification directly from the app advising them to do so.”
Following an update to the app on 13 October, users who receive a default exposure notification from Apple or Google but do not need to take any action will now be sent a follow-up message from the app making this clear, it added.
The message many users have complained about on Twitter read: “Possible Covid-19 Exposure. Verifying exposure info. The app has accessed the date, duration and signal strength of this exposure.”
Others messages said: “Someone you were near reported having Covid-19. Exposure date, duration and signal strength have been saved.”
so what exactly is one supposed to do with an alert like this about “possible covid-19 exposure”? there is literally no other information pic.twitter.com/YFGdQmrpLM
— Tracy Chou (@triketora) October 12, 2020
So I got a possible COVID exposure notification, had a mini heart attack, then found that there was nothing in the NHS app and it was just a glitch. What an absolute mess 🤣🤣
— Jodie ✨ (@Jodiewithie) October 12, 2020
I’ve had that bug/glitch on the app twice now coming up regarding possible exposure to COVID-19...freaked me out first time as was 6.30am! Was on way to work with not a single person in the vicinity! had to go on here to find out was a bug/glitch w/ the app
— Andrew Leason (@ANDREW0675) October 12, 2020
Love getting endless sinister alerts from the NHS app telling me about a possible COVID exposure with absolutely no detail or subsequent follow-through... it’s really doing wonders for my paranoia this pandemic season! ✨
— Freya Judd (@FreyaJudd) October 12, 2020
To add to the confusion, although the NHS website had a reference to the problem, the app’s own ‘Common Questions’ section failed to offer any reassurance to users who had received ghost notifications.
Shadow health minister Justin Madders said even tougher action was possibly needed.
“It is vital for public confidence that alerts on the app should only be triggered by genuine circumstances.
“There is too much pressure on Test and Trace as it is for there to be resources wasted on tests when people don’t need them, never mind the individual anxiety this causes. These issues must be fixed without delay.”
Apple and Google’s bluetooth tech is designed to preserve users’ privacy, while allowing Android and iOS-powered smartphones to keep tabs on who they have been close to.
The “Exposure Notification” API uses Bluetooth to determine whether – at some point during the last two weeks – an app user has been close to someone who later tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The information is kept anonymous to restrict the amount of health and location data stored on phones.
But the Bluetooth tech is not sensitive enough to work out exactly how long or how close a possible Covid carrier has been to someone else and the app itself refines the information with more data from its risk-scoring algorithm.
The DHSC’s advice is that if anyone is concerned or confused when they receive a notification, they should simply open the app and take the advice from inside the app.
The ‘Exposure Notifications’ are default privacy notifications from Apple and Google to alert people that the app is sharing information with the Application Programming Interface (API) – the software intermediary that allows two applications to talk to each other.
The Apple or Google notifications, titled either “COVID-19 EXPOSURE LOGGING” or “COVID-19 Exposure” notifications, often disappear after or cannot be clicked on.
Government insiders stressed that this was the same Apple and Google Exposure Notification software used on Covid apps in other countries, but the most important messages from the NHS app will always be visible once it is opened.
Messages from the NHS COVID-19 app will not ‘disappear’ when clicked on, and users will be able to see the advice within the app when opened.
When the default “ghost notification” problem was first spotted in Northern Ireland during its own pilot scheme for an app, the problem was reportedly solved by a new software upgrade.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.