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Have you installed the NHS COVID-19 app yet?

Is your phone able to run the NHS test and trace app? Here’s why the app won’t work on ‘older’ devices, and how mobile operating systems go out of support.

Have you installed the NHS Covid-19 app yet? Or have you been put off by the myriad stories circulating on social media that it’s being run by Serco (it isn’t), that it’s tracking your every move (it isn’t) or that it’s sending out alarming false alerts that you need to self-isolate (it’s sort of doing that, but not really)?

Or perhaps you just don’t have a phone that’s new enough? We’ve seen many complaints from people that their phone can’t run the app. 

It’s true that only phones that can either run iOS 13.5 or Android 6 (Marshmallow) can run the app, and it’s worth digging into why that is.

Low-energy Bluetooth chips

The app works by using the Bluetooth low-energy chip in your iPhone or Android device to detect other phones nearby also using the app. It logs how much time you spend near those other phones and how close you are to them, and stores those logs on your phone.

If someone then tests positive for COVID-19 and chooses to upload their logs, you will get an alert telling you that you need to self-isolate.

Scam alert: fake NHS coronavirus contact tracing text

All of that requires hardware that’s only found on newer phones: older devices simply don’t have the required low-energy Bluetooth chip.

However, the launch of the app has exposed a gulf between what the general public and those involved in tech consider an ‘old’ and a ‘new’ phone. 

Unsupported hardware

Earlier this year we published research that revealed that up to a billion Android devices around the world are running on an old, unsupported version of Android. In our reporting, we covered the kind of malware that could be lurking on those old phones.

Since then I’ve had many, many conversations with friends, Which? members, TV and radio hosts and others about this problem. Many people, quite rightly, are horrified when they discover that their older device, which seems to work perfectly well, isn’t safe to use and should be replaced.

The root of this problem is that Google, which manages the version of Android most of us in the west use, does not update the platform after three years.

That means not only will a phone not get any more new features in new versions of Android once it’s past its end-of-life date, more crucially, it won’t get any security patches.

The news is slightly better with iPhones: Apple supports its phones for up to five years. The general rule of thumb with iPhones (and iPads) is that if you can’t install the current version of iOS, then it’s time to replace your device. For the record, the oldest iPhone that can install iOS 14 is the iPhone 6S.

Apple does occasionally put out updates for devices it’s no longer officially supporting: the last update it put out to iOS 13 was to roll out the underlying software framework (the ‘API’) that allows the NHS Covid-19 app to work. If your phone can download and install iOS 13.5, you can run the NHS Covid-19 app.

The most recent version of Android is Android 11, which will be on many new phones bought now. Most phones bought in the past year will be running Android 10, and if your phone is running Android 9, also known as Android Pie, you should still be getting security updates.

The NHS Covid-19 app also works on phones running the now unsupported Android versions 6, 7 and 8 (Android Marshmallow, Nougat and Oreo).

Data from Statista suggests that most Android phones globally are running Android 9, or Pie (31.3%), but there are still a fair number of phones on older versions.

How ‘old’ is your phone?

The introduction of the COVID-19 app has focused many people’s minds on how old their phones are.

It’s infuriating to have to think about replacing a device that seems to work perfectly well, and it’s particularly frustrating when we think about the impact on the environment of devices that only have a short shelf life.

All I can say is: I really sympathise, but I’m also here to say that if your phone can’t run the COVID-19 app, please think about replacing it as soon as you can. 

In the meantime, here are some steps you can take to reduce the risk of using an old device:

Be careful what you download: only download apps from the Google Play store – don’t install apps from any other source. (iPhone users can only install apps from the official App store.)

Be careful what you click on: it’s a bad idea generally to click on links unless you absolutely trust the source, but if your phone isn’t supported any more, you’re more at risk of accidentally downloading virus, cryptominers and other malware.

Back up your data: make sure all your precious photos and other files are safely backed up, ideally in two places: a separate hard drive and the cloud. That way if the worst happens, you will at least still have your files.

Install mobile antivirus: there are many choices in the Google Play Store: pick one from a big, reputable vendor such as Sophos, AVG, Kaspersky, etc. If your phone is very old, you might find that you don’t have much choice, however.

Do you feel the NHS Track and Trace app is safe?
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Comments

We don’t all have “smart” phones, or any mobile internet.

. . . and long may we retain that choice. It is a matter of concern that government and commerce are presuming that everyone is permanently connected. It would not surprise me if some sections of the community feel this is adding to their sense of isolation and potentially leading to psychological problems.

But when most people do have a suitable phone it is quite reasonable to use it for appropriate jobs, like track and trace. I don’t see that it disadvantages anyone, rather it is an additional safeguard to many.

I can recommend AirDrop for sharing photos and files with other iPhone users nearby – e.g. outdoors and 3 metres+ away from them. I don’t know what the equivalent is for other phones.

John wrote: “It would not surprise me if some sections of the community feel this is adding to their sense of isolation and potentially leading to psychological problems.” During the pandemic, keeping in touch with people has surely helped to keep many of us sane.

I agree, essentially a social species, contact with other people is essential during difficult times and an extra bonus if they happen to be like minded people with an intuitive inclination to help others. I don’t possess a smart phone as the iPad supplies most of my needs and my mobile is used for emergencies only when I travel.

Staying in touch with people does not require a smart phone. E-mails, landlines, fax, walkie-talkies, semaphore signals, Aldis lamps, postcards and carrier pigeons can all be used. Indeed, communication has never been easier than it is today yet some people still feel distanced or cut-off.

In my comment I meant that the increasing expectation of commerce and government for people to be internet-connected, so that those without such an interface were deprived of information, documents, resources, access to details, terms and conditions, and other essential material, could feel isolated within today’s society.

Different people need different levels or degrees of contact and communication so whereas the modern world provides a plethora of devices and channels, it hasn’t overcome loneliness or a sense of exclusion for some.

I just feel that, collectively, we need to bear that in mind and not blithely assume that everyone likes using, or has, a smartphone or a tablet. I think Crusader – at the top of these comments – was making the same point but much more succinctly.

I agree that keeping in touch with people does not require a smartphone, John. It offers no benefits over a landline phone for voice calls. On the other hand, smartphones and computers do offer the benefit of video calls.

I agree with you that many are deprived of essential information but that’s because of the move to make this available online. I don’t see what that has to do with smartphones.

When we did not have smart phones and computers how was that essential information provided? Have we really been deprived of it or have smart phones and computers simply added another means of disseminating information, often far more comprehensive and immediate, than we ever could have had?

What would be wrong is if they were the only means of providing essential information.

The move to making information available only online is a big problem, Malcolm. The fact that a smartphone is one way of accessing information online is not really relevant.

Businesses, councils, etc. should make information available to everyone, even if they do not make use of the internet.

I think it is because there is an assumption that everyone has convenient access to the internet that councils and businesses have made it more difficult than previously to see detailed information.

Recently looking in the local magazine for certain trades I noticed how few gave a physical address or landline number, some relying entirely on an e-mail address and/or mobile phone number. I prefer to engage local companies and those with a substantial physical presence.

Councils carry out their consultation exercises on-line nowadays and although there is usually a paper version available from the office it is not so convenient as the advertisements and questionnaires that used to appear in the local press or be delivered to affected households hence the response rates are lower. Apart from the statutory notices, councils seem to make little use of local news media anymore leading to a general decline in their quality and interest

What we expect from traders would make an interesting discussion, John, but we are off-topic here.

I agree with John. My smart phone allows me to make calls when out and about and, in emergencies, spend a fortune and turn on the internet connection for a brief while. I can access wifi, when I need to, insecurely. I don’t particularly want to be connected to the internet everywhere I go, just at home or where I happen to be staying indoors. This being so, the Covid app is unavailable to me. My antiquated software doesn’t support the app anyway and is another reason to avoid internet connections in general on the phone. I agree that the government and the commercial sector should not assume that we all wish to be permanently connected to the web. There’s more to life than staring at a screen every five minutes, though some youngsters might disagree.

As an example, the only way you could view the details of a planning application was by visiting the council offices or nominated places. You still can do this, the council still notifies neighbours by letter and notices are stuck outside properties. So the information is still made available in the traditional way but, if I have internet access I can look at the plans without leaving the house. Our parish council meeting minutes are still put on their noticeboard, but are now available online. So those without internet access are not disadvantaged; those with it have an advantage. I see nothing wrong with that.

Without a COVID app and the means to use it how could proximity to a carrier otherwise be detected and notified? COVID information and restrictions are widely publicised on the news and papers, so internet is a bonus. It would be interesting to see where people without internet access cannot get essential information on COVID that once could only be provided by other means.

Sticking strictly to the Covid-19 topic for a moment, the system is good and I agree there is no more efficient way of identifying possible contacts, but it is only as good as the testing regime and at present that is falling far short of expectations.

Our phones do not know whether or not we are carriers of the disease unless we have been tested and the status has been uploaded; this leaves room for a wide margin of uncertainty. To extract the maximum value from the mobile phone technology the government must greatly expand the testing capacity.

A different issue – but intimately connected – is that phones over three years old will not necessarily support the app so there is a big hole in the database and many smartphone users might not know it.

On planning applications, significant ones used to be featured in the local newspapers but this is no longer the case. The new internet-enabled channel is undoubtedly an improvement but it is not an additional resource having virtually replaced the local media method of publicising schemes that have widespread impact. Having pored over many planning applications both at the council offices and on line I can confirm that it is not a very accessible process in either form. It requires a lot of time and patience, plus a fair bit of knowledge of what to look for and to understand the technical drawings. The press would normally distil the application down to its core elements, highlight the major implications, round up some reactions, and present a useful analysis for community consideration and then they would print letters for and against for all to see. This can all be gleaned on-line on a personal basis by a diligent pursuit of details but it lacks the communal involvement.

The government is proposing to abolish the statutory notification of many planning applications to neighbouring properties if the use and proposal remains within the designated category and conforms to the adopted local plan. Conservation and environmental bodies and many MP’s have protested that it would compound the democratic deficit and the government might reconsider. Open government is gradually closing out and we are on a slippery slope, the internet being both the justification and the excuse since it has led to little gain in public participation.

I appreciate that much of this is off topic, but we can’t help it if topics are going to be cast on such a narrow frame that they admit of little deliberation.

Planning applications are listed in our Parish Magazine. The tradition local newspapers for official announcements is far less useful when most people don’t buy them. I hope at least neighbours will continue to be informed of planning applications that directly affect them; word then spreads.

In my local area there isn’t any reality-world local newspaper. The council is very digital-first, so anyone who is not online just does not hear about consultations. With planning and licensing application notices only being displayed right by the property concerned (often as hidden as possible), and only the most immediate neighbours informed by letter, many applications go through without local people realising what is going on until it is too late to have voices heard on negative impacts.

The problem of older phones not supporting the NHS app has been raised before. Most people who are working carry a modern phone. Some carry two, with one for work and the other for personal use. Since many of these phones will be replaced when they are two years old there must be plenty of opportunity to acquire a cheap phone that will run the app. As Derek has mentioned numerous times there are plenty of new smartphones that cost far less than the well known expensive models.

There is always the problem that a lot of people simply cannot afford smart phones, and some cannot afford to buy any mobile phone at all. Then there are those who buy refurbished ones, which can be too old for the NHS app to work on them. People on lower incomes are excluded from society in increasing numbers of ways, such as local councils prioritising digital access to information and services. My local council has progressed from prioritising online planning information and commenting, to making it more difficult for people to do it online – you have to have an account (different accounts for different services), now you have to log on to comment. People who are not so good at technology just give up.

I tried the NHS track and trace app, and it seemed to work fine on brief use. However it flattened the battery on my 18-month old Motorola phone so fast that I had to charge it twice a day rather than every other day. Plus it prevented the phone connecting to my car for hands-free calls. ( I know they are best avoided, but vital for brief alerts from time to time).
Hopefully the software will improve so and I will be able to try it again soon.

Will says:
12 January 2021

iOS 12.5 came out in December which added exposure notification API so that older iPhone’s such as 5S and 6 could participate. However, NHS Covid 19 app still has not been updated to support them.

Frank says:
26 January 2021

As already said iOS 12.5 came out in December (now ios 12.5.1) which enable iPhone 5S and 6 to work with the NHS Covid 19 app, but the app has not been updated yet. Please could Which enquire about this?