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NHS admits contact tracing app won't work on older iPhones

Apple's iPhone 5S is the oldes model that can run the NHS app

Trials of the UK's NHS coronavirus contact-tracing app reveal that users must have iOS 11 or later, and battery life is profoundly impacted by the feature.

Following the UK National Health Service's controversial choice to reject Apple and Google's coronavirus contact tracing technology in favor of its own, less private, system, test trials have revealed problems. Users testing the app on the UK's Isle of Wight report their batteries are being drained, and that it will not work at all on certain phones.

Geraint Lewis, development leader at the health service's technology group NHSX, has appeared on the local BBC Radio Solent station to explain the app and answer criticisms. The interview is no longer available on the station's catchup service, but according to the UK's Daily Mail, Lewis responded to many listeners' phone calls about the app not working.

"[One reason] why the app might not work on a particular smart phone," he said, "[is that] the development team has not got around to supporting that particular phone."

He also said that Apple iPhones require iOS 11 or later, and Android ones need version 8 or later. "So if you can update the operating system that should hopefully help," he added.

The oldest iPhone that can run iOS 11, and therefore the app, is the iPhone 5s in 2013. All Huawei phones are locked out because of Google forcing the company to stop using its Google Play Store.

From the NHS's video on how to use the app
From the NHS's video on how to use the app

However, Lewis suggested that the inability to run the app isn't a problem. "The system is there to protect the whole community," he said, "so if sufficient numbers of people download and use the app everyone will be protected regardless of whether they themselves have a phone that is compatible."

According to Lewis, the NHSX system relies on Bluetooth Low Energy, and older phones which do not have it, cannot use the app. He also said that because it uses BLE, it is not draining people's batteries.

Following a listener's complaint that it does, he asked people to send feedback to the NHSX as part of the trial. The trial continues and while no end date has been announced, the UK government says it expects to roll out the app nationwide in the coming weeks.

Recently, the NHS has reportedly been considering switching to the more private and efficient system from Apple and Google, though no official confirmation has yet been made.