The UK government has been forced to update the NHS Covid-19 contact tracing app after users complained about receiving confusing messages about “possible exposure” to the virus.

On social media and both the Google and Apple app stores, a number of people mentioned that they had received notifications warning of “possible Covid-19 Exposure” in recent weeks. These messages disappeared when the app was opened, leading to confusion as to what actions were necessary.

One reviewer on Apple’s App Store, who described themselves as a cancer patient, said they had considered cancelling their chemotherapy treatment after seeing the warning of “possible exposure”. “The [app’s] flaws could lead to a lot of unneeded stress and worry, and could lead to someone delaying vital treatment, like I almost did,” the reviewer, emjane4141, wrote.

After an update released on Tuesday, those users who receive a vanishing notification will now be sent a second message from the app telling them that they do not need to self-isolate.

The follow-up message will say: “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.”

The “possible exposure” notifications are generated by the system that Apple and Google have built into their smartphones, upon which the NHS Covid-19 tracing app is built.

These are distinct from messages users receive if the Bluetooth proximity detection system says they have been close to someone who tested positive for Covid-19, and which tells users to self-isolate.

They are also different from the “warn and inform” message sent to app users if they have visited a venue that a local health protection authority has linked to an outbreak. An investigation by Sky News last week found that only one such message had been sent out, however.

“NHS COVID-19 app users only need to self-isolate if they get a notification directly from the app advising them to do so,” the Department of Health and Social Care said.

The contact-tracing app faced a tortuous journey to its release in September. An earlier version developed by NHSX, the state-funded health service’s digital innovation arm, was abandoned in June despite £12m being spent on development, to be replaced by the current system.

The app has been lauded by a number of experts for its privacy-preserving features, with data about users — such as the venues they have visited and whether they have received a positive coronavirus test — stored on their phones rather than in a centralised database.

Nevertheless, the app has faced criticism over issues such as the fact that its proximity detection relies on Bluetooth Low Energy, a feature only built into phones in the past four years or so.

Additional reporting by Tim Bradshaw



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