/ Technology

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

I have installed the app, though I’m continuing to keep well away from others.

Valerie Mainstone says:
7 October 2020

I haven’t installed the app, because I don’t trust Boris Johnson or his supporters, and I don’t trust the private companies, such as Serco and Palentir, that have been given millionaire contracts to Test-and-Trace. I don’t want any of them to know who I see, or who I phone.

Anon says:
7 October 2020

Maybe we could have better wording for ‘ordinary human beings and tech people’

A good point. I have amended. Thank you.

Thanks for writing this piece Kate! One question we’ve had come in over social media: given the app requires you to keep your Bluetooth connection on, is there a way a malicious character could exploit that connection to gain access to your phone?

Jon, no the app doesn’t require you to leave your Bluetooth discoverable. Your Bluetooth will connect only to devices with which you have on purpose paired your phone, as well as using Apple and Google’s exposure logging framework. Therefore, bluejacking and blusnarfing, to which Kate refers, aren’t possible.

I hope that those who download the app realise that Bluetooth needs to be switched on for it to work.

My phone is too “old” to run the app.I have a newer phone on which I have installed it, for personal reasons, it is not a phone I normally want to use. However I will take both phones when I am going to encounter other people.

For the sake of the environment it seems a shame Google appear less than responsible. Is that fair?

@katebevan, a well put together piece, if I may say so. But no surprise!

With much of the world in lockdown, people losing their jobs, climate change and sustainability, all governments should be pressurising tech companies to support their products for at least 10 years.

It is not as though they can’t afford it.

Today I have been using a 17 year old DAB radio, a microwave oven and vacuum cleaner that are 30 years old. Later on I will use my dishwasher and fan oven that I believe are 15 years old (they came with the house and the instructions are marked 2005). I could replace all these products with new ones but am happy to continue to use them as long as they continue to do their job.

On the other hand, I don’t believe that it it is practical to expect manufacturers to support phones for ten years because the technology is evolving so fast at present. Perhaps an independent expert could say what is practical. From what I have read, six years from the date of launch could be possible.

In the meantime I would like all phones sold with the end of support date shown on packaging and in product advertising.

In a way I am glad I have never connected my smartphone to the internet so I don’t have to worry about this problem. I don’t have any need to use the internet outside the home so my phone remains extremely useable and in pristine condition for its essential communication purpose. Its main purpose these days is to receive one time pass codes to authenticate payments and purchases made on-line. This seems to be the sustainable way to go.

Whatever tech you buy, a month later there is a slightly faster chip, a better and upgraded something or other.

Do you think they just discovered or invented that slightly faster chip or do they have many minor advances lined up to drip-feed us into keep buying new?

My smartphone is used much the same as John’s.

@alfa, surely not! How cynical. I suppose the same happened with the GPO phone. We went from a cranking handle to a one piece handset, then STD, coloured phones ……. No sooner had one technology emerged than, 20 years later, we were tempted by yet another improvement. Talk about profiteering………..!

Perhaps the main problem is the large number of people that buy new phones after two years when their contract ends. I hope they are given or sold to those who don’t feel the need for a shiny new one.

My smartphone lasted nearly five years and had been used more than most products I own. I’m glad to have a new one.

Wot moi? Cynical? Nah !!! 😈

Within weeks of buying a new PC, AMD are telling me I need to upgrade my top-of-the range graphics card.

I still use a free Paintshop 7 on Win 7 that I think was released in 2000 so 20 years old. As I have used it free for so long, I thought I would buy it for my new PC. Within weeks they were bombarding me to buy the upgraded version.

Edited, Sorry seem to be going off-topic slightly.

I have just replaced the battery in my 11/12 year-old Nokia 5800 that was on its original battery. I keep the phone as it has a better signal than my newer Samsung.

I was surprised at how much the old battery had expanded in the middle.

I use old software on old computers too, but not online for security reasons. I would not want to use a phone or computer that is not secure.

Perhaps Malcolm found the best solution, Alfa. He has a phone that was passed on by one of his sons.

Although my iPhone 8 is running iOS 14, I experienced a problem. This is what I did:

1. To see how the technology worked before the NHS’s app was ready, I installed Beat COVID Gibraltar under iOS 13.5.1 on 18th June 2020 and COVID Tracker Ireland under iOS 13.6 on 6th July 2020. These apps use exactly the same framework that is built into iOS.
2. Because nobody around me was using the technology, in Settings -> Privacy -> Health -> COVID-19 Exposure Logging, I disabled Exposure Logging to save the battery.
3. I updated my iPhone to iOS 14 and subsequently 14.0.1, where Apple has now removed the above “Exposure Logging” option, thereby preventing me from re-enabling it.
4. I removed the Beat COVID Gibraltar and COVID Tracker Ireland apps.
5. I installed and opened the NHS COVID-19 app, and it told me “Unfortunately, you can’t run this app. This could be due to: A restriction in your settings; Another app on your phone using the same technology and stopping this app from working“. I get similar errors if I install any other exposure tracking app, such as the Gibraltar, Irish or Scottish apps. This is because in iOS 14 and later, there is no way to re-enable Exposure Logging, even though there is a way to enable Exposure Notifications (which is unsuccessful if Exposure Logging remains disabled).
6. I reported the issue to the NHS’s technical support and Apple’s technical support. Apple was useless, focussing on irrelevant issues such as wifi profiles, but the NHS gave me a solution that worked for someone else I found who had done similar steps to mine above. However, the solution requires resetting all location and privacy settings, of which I have a huge amount. Therefore I am waiting for Apple to give me another solution that doesn’t erase any of my data; my settings are my data.

Although the issue is caused totally by Apple, given that it affects all exposure tracking apps and not only the NHS app, I am very impressed with the NHS’s technical support, which is far more knowledgeable and responsive than Apple’s own technical support. The NHS really deserves credit for this. Apple could learn a lot from the NHS.

Robert Black says:
9 October 2020

I had this problem too using the NHS app in England after using Corona Warn in Germany. I can’t remember how I fixed it, but it wasn’t as difficult as you suggest. The ‘Exposure Notifications’ section of Settings is pretty clear. I’m in Germany again now, and Corona Warn seems to be working fine; let’s see what happens when I get back to England again. Obviously it would be grotesquely silly if using one of these apps forces you to stay in one country.

Jean says:
7 October 2020

I live in the BL8 area and am told that the risk level is high. All in this area knew that. I expected to be told what the level is in my village. My husband has a very old mobile – a brick – so there’s no chance that he could get the app.

I’ve been using the app since it was released.

As we can now see every day, the current crop of UK covid control measures are not working well enough, not even in the areas where tough local restrictions are in place.

Hence I think using the app may do some good, by improving our test trace & isolate system.

One of the biggest problems with Android is that, whenever Google releases a new version of the Android operating system, each phone manufacturer needs in turn to release its own adaptation of the new Android version for devices that it manufactured. Many manufacturers don’t bother to do so, preferring to spend their resources only on their new devices, leaving many Android phones with an old version of Android that can’t be updated.

Apple, on the other hand, is the manufacturer of both the hardware and the software. Whenever Apple releases a new version of its iOS operating system, it is immediately available for all iPhones up to a certain age. Apple’s latest version, iOS 14, is available for every iPhone released since five years ago, or in other words for the iPhone 6S and later. For me, this is one of the top reasons that I stick with iPhones, and will buy a new one next week when new iPhones are launched and existing iPhones fall in price.

I’d consider using iPhones too, if they were not so expensive.

For my needs, I can buy a perfectly adequate new Android phone for about £100.

Recently I have spent some time trying out iPhones, including a 6, an SE and an 8, but none of them have tempted me away from my staple diet of Android phones.

Derek, you might want to look at the iPhone SE 2020 in around a week’s time. It currently starts at £419, and might well fall in price when four iPhone 12 models are launched next week. The iPhone SE 2020 has the outside casing of the iPhone 6/6S/7/8 and the inside components of the most recent iPhone 11. Unlike the latest iPhones, it doesn’t have an ugly notch and it still has a convenient home button. It’s a very good option.

Thanks for your suggestions but at £419 that is about £319 too expensive for me.

So far I’m very pleased with my Honor 8s.

Mmmm…but you can’t pilot the Dragon with that, or change the orbital vector of the ISS…

Thankfully I don’t need to do any of that. But I can post on here and stream videos.

Me too DerekP. It us good enough for me and I have better things to do with £00s

Except I can’t seem to sign in……. A bit later… Well now it seens to gave sorted itself out

All except my spelling 🙁

Mike says:
9 October 2020

I installed the app on my samsung phone but as part of the install it said that there wasn’t enough space and it removed my WhatsApp which I use every day so I removed the NHS app and reinstalled the WhatsApp. I also was worried about the additional battery usage as it is on all the time.

All the phones that can use the app use ‘Bluetooth Low Energy’, so there should not be a problem.

FrankF says:
9 October 2020

Downloaded the app to my Samsung S6 (which is on the phones which work list) and the phone stopped, never to start again. Wouldn’t close, wouldn’t start, wouldn’t charge, wouldn’t do anything and I was quoted £80+ to have a look at it, plus any repair cost. Bought new phone! App has cost me quite a lot!

Robert Lewis says:
9 October 2020

I have an old Motorola android phone which does everything I ask of it – phone calls, texting and family WhatsApp. However, it will not install the NHS app so I guess I’ll have to look at replacing the phone at some point as I would like to do the right thing and be a responsible citizen. In the meantime I’ll continue to record my details on paper in the establishments I visit.

It’s all very well you technical experts swapping info about how to do things with your phones – I don’t understand half of this stuff people are talking about – what on earth is an orbital vector or an ISS? I only vaguely understand what Bluetooth is and am not sure what the difference is between that and WiFi.
I have an iphone 6 which works fine. I use it to make phone calls and send texts and occasionally access the internet, although that often seems to be a struggle. Since lockdown I have been taught how to make calls using something called watsapp to keep in touch with friends.
Now I read that my perfectly good phone is too old to download something the government has designed to keep older people like me safe.
If I found the money to buy a new iphone (mine is iphone 6) I would have no idea how to change over after I open the box. How do I move all my contacts and messages history to the new phone?
I can’t risk losing all that stuff

And most importantly I use my phone to listen to audio books via an earpiece which I plug in to the side of the phone. I hear that new iphones don’t have a plug for that and that you have to buy expensive “bluetooth” headphones – yet more expense.

I will have to stick with iphone sbecause I certainly can’t change my phone every 3 years – even 5 years would be bad enough.
Will the new cheaper iphone SE have a socket for my earpiece?

Hi brissle,

Sorry for all the above off topic conversations about the benefits (or otherwise) of new and newer iphones. I’d forgotten about the headphone jack annoyance. I think my old SE was the last iPhone model with a headphone socket. Like you , I have a favourite headset that I like to use with my audio devices.

To answer your last question first: The new iPhone SE is not fitted with a standard headphone jack socket, but you can buy an adaptor for one as an extra.

See here:-https://www.argos.co.uk/product/7530384?clickSR=slp:term:apple%20iphone%20se:1:20:1 for the Argos catalogue page on that model. (Other retailers are available, not least Apple’s own stores, but I like Argos and trust their after sales service.)

If you are completely happy with your iPhone 6, then you might prefer to do what malcolm r is doing and keep it in use, but, when you go out, carrying a second phone just for the covid app. Or perhaps you might decide the skip the app altogether and just stick to basic simple social distancing precautions, as many others will also have to do.

If, however, you do choose to get a newer iPhone, and if you have all your apps and data backed up via your Apple account, it is easy to move your apps and data onto a new iPhone. I think some phone shops will even help with this at the point of purchase, so long as you have the details of your Apple id and password to hand. Also, so long as you did not part-exchange your old phone, then you would still be able to see data on it, even without a phone signal.

Brissle, I agree. Far too much is taken for granted. We need clear instructions on the basics. The assumption seems that because phones have been around a long time everyone is familiar with their operation and keep an active interest in their changing technology. Not so. For many they are tools they just want to work out of the box, or they are first time users who need their hand holding.

Which?’s Kate Bevan has written a good guide to mobile phones http://static.which.co.uk/guides/Smartphones_made_easy_Dec2019.pdf
Perhaps it, like other such guides, should be given wider publicity? Like other Which? information, it offers good stuff that many will find invaluable; such benefits from Which? offer value for money and could be used to attract the many more members our consumer group needs..

Instructions can be very poor. One of my sons is savvy and, in advance of an impending first baby, bought an adaptor for a doorbell from a well-known company that took the signal to a speaker unit that could change the output to a volume controlled sound or be silenced with a flashing light instead. The instructions were in pictures, not words, which can be useful and save paper when a product is sold internationally. However this product seemed to be aimed at ancient Egypt as the pictograms were as useful as hieroglyphics to a non- classical scholar. Fortunately his technobrain managed to get it working.

ChrisG says:
9 October 2020

I downloaded the app without problem on my ‘old’ iPhone SE and it works fine. I think it’s essential that we do have some kind of tracking and tracing system, which is why I’m using it. I see no risk from using it. I switch the app off while at home. The app seems to have little additional functionality; if I go to another postcode I don’t learn what the risk is there, which would be very useful to know. And as for the section that gives you information on the latest coronavirus regulations, it is very hard to find out anything from it. It is written in language that is dense prolix, and somewhat inaccessible (bureaucratese). Instead of getting a list of restrictions, you have to navigate several levels of prose to get to the government web sites to read the documents. It is a major missed opportunity to improve communication of the complex, changing, and often confusing, rules. It doesn’t take a genius to make the information clear and accessible (and possibly multilingual), just a professional communicator.

Mike Farmer says:
9 October 2020

The main problem with the COVID-19 app is that you have to have Bluetooth enabled all the time, which is a huge battery drain. With Bluetooth switched off my phone battery charge last well over 24 hours. With Bluetooth switched on I get less than 24 hours. So I normally have Bluetooth switched off which means that the app doesn’t work on my phone. They need to sort this out.

Kate is right. Having Bluetooth enabled all the time doesn’t drain your battery. I have an Apple Watch, which is connected to my iPhone via Bluetooth, and therefore needs Bluetooth to be always enabled. It doesn’t drain the battery.

Further to Brissle’s post I was in the process of moving my response as it appeared here, out of position. But then Kare replied to mine – she is quick of the mark. So I have edited what I said.

Which?’s Kate Bevan has written a good guide to mobile phones http://static.which.co.uk/guides/Smartphones_made_easy_Dec2019.pdf
Perhaps it, like other such guides, should be given wider publicity? Like other Which? information, it offers good stuff that many will find invaluable; such benefits from Which? offer value for money and could be used to attract the many more members our consumer group needs..

Thanks Kate – good idea in principle but I was given a subscription to Computing Which by my son a few years ago and I did use their excellent Tech Support Team a few times when I got stuck on things. It seemed a good idea at the time.
But I told my son to cancel the subscription a few months ago because, frankly, I was finding that 75% of the content was way over my head or not relevant to me. I use a desktop PC at home and (like my iphone) it’s many years old but seems to do all I need – WORD, emails, internet, Skype (with the grandchildren who live in Spain) and Google Photos.

My tech-savvy 16 yo grandson (in Spain) used to sort out any problems we had with the phone or PC when he came to visit, but of course his family can’t come to the UK at the moment (we haven’t seen our grandchildren since last Christmas), otherwise I would have asked him to change the phone for us.

Thank you also to Malcolm for his suggestions. We’re just going out so will look at all your helpful stuff later.

Charnwood traveller says:
9 October 2020

It is high time that Google and others had to provide software support for longer periods, rather than promoting (as ‘Which’ does) the purchase of new tech. If the old one suits you and does the job you want why change it and add to the heaps of waste destroying the planet (even with recycling).

Nobody seems to consider the fact that the app can only be downloaded from the apple or google stores to which you have to sign up to an account thus giving away your privacy to these two monolithic companies who then track everything you do and sell your data all round the world.

I think that’s a fair point.

Obviously users of iPhones and Android phones are more or less forced to sign up for Apple and Google accounts, so they will have accept sharing some data with those bodies anyway. As far as I can see:

Using the covid app does not affect the data that I am already sharing with Google.

Also, Google and Apple have produced a good framework under which the app does not monitor my locations but merely compilies an anonymised list of the smartphones that I have spent time close to.

What we all do on the internet gives each of us a unique digital footprint. But , even if we totally abstain from any personal internet use, we’ll still all have digital footprints generated by the actions of others.

For those who absolutely refuse to join Google or Apple or both, there are more specialist smartphones in existence or under development, for example see:-https://puri.sm/products/

The LIbrem 5 price tag makes any iPhone look like a real bargain. Privacy, it seems, ain’t cheap.

Indeed. You really do have to money where your mouth is if you want to have a smartphone without signing up to either Google or Apple.

For me as a gmail and YouTube user, I have to accept sharing some data with Google. Then, given that I have done that, I don’t mind sharing a little data with Apple now and then. I rediscovered last night that I do also have an Amazon account, when I needed to go there to buy a book about old Welsh mines (see:-https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1784618659/ref=pe_3187911_185740111_TE_item ).

Derek, I don’t believe that there are any privacy risks involved with an Apple account. Apple does a much better job than Google at protecting privacy. My only privacy concern with Apple is that iCloud, like most cloud services, is not zero-knowledge. Therefore in theory, someone other than you could access the data stored in your iCloud account. With zero-knowledge encryption, your data is encrypted before it is sent to the cloud service, and nobody can decrypt it without your password. Therefore I back up my iPhone to my laptop, which in turn backs up the backup to a zero-knowledge cloud service.

NFH, I’d certainly agree that Apple is far less risky than Google. I also agree that their cloud services, which I think tend to be enabled by default, are an obvious component of that risk. As you note, unless cloud storage only holds user encrypted data, others may gain access, deliberately or accidentally.

Rhagorol, Derek.

Kevin says:
9 October 2020

I agree that operationally Apple security and privacy is much better than Google; their business model is different. But consider that Apple is a publicly traded company, Blackrock own 6% of it. Is 6% of your data ‘owned’ by Blackrock?

No, Kevin, that’s not how share ownership works.

Kevin says:
11 October 2020

Hi NFH
My point is that the free personal data people hand over to Apple may be technically more secure than, for example, Google, in terms of process, but that data is an Apple asset and my experience of US companies is that profit is the overwhelming business motive; if a new business model improves the share price, your [data] interests are unlikely to figure much in the calculation. I used to despair of public sector procurement assuming that, for example, Microsoft had anything but a commercial incentive in providing ‘free’ or ‘subsidised’ software. The fallout of that monoculture software strategy partly explains the Excel fiasco with test and trace.

There are understandable concerns about the trade-ability of data assets, and no one knows their true value. I guess Apple, and most of the other big tech corporations, are fairly immune from takeovers because nobody else could afford to buy a controlling interest and it would probably fall foul of anti-trust legislation anyway. But there is no guaranteed protection for personal data, just a legislative sanction for misuse, so everyone needs to be careful over what they give and to whom and why.

Apple’s value is probably not in the data it holds; data acquisition from other sources is possible at a much lower price than the cost of buying Apple out. Nevertheless, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that some powerful organisation with unlimited money could employ enough computing power to crack open a data mountain the size of Apple’s – and growing by the second – and mine something useful. I think they would expect to get something better than our personal details though.

I must say I am apalled that Which is saying it’s good to throw away a 3 year old phone because the manufacturer says it’s obsolete. Hardly planet-saving advice is it?
The app won’t work on my phone because it’s a Windows phone. I suppose the advice would be to throw away a perfectly good working phone and buy another. Good for manufacturers’ profits, but that is not what the Consumer Association should be about.

Planned obsolescene in tech products seems to be worst with inexpensive smartphones and so-called smart TV’s. I agree this is shameful.

Other tech products, like Windows PC’s can have much longer working lives, often well over 10 years.

In the middle ground, Apple PC’s and Chromebooks aren’t really supported for long enough (only about 5 or 6 years).

Unsupported Apple PC’s can be upgraded to other OSes (e.g. Linux or Windows 10) and there may be some equivalent tricks possible for some Chromebooks, see:-https://www.ifixit.com/News/30282/how-to-get-updates-on-your-end-of-life-chromebook

Smart TV’s can be easily fittted with smart plugin devices (e.g. Roku or Chromecast) or even repurposed PC’s.

But old smart phones are often either hard or impossible to repurpose.