Government & Public,  Medical Device and Healthcare

NHS COVID-19 app prevents 1 million infections and advances mobile medtech

We designed and developed the UK’s COVID-19 app and supporting infrastructure, helping to prevent an estimated 1 million cases of the virus, corresponding to 9,600 deaths avoided.

  • Medically approved app delivered in just 12 weeks

  • Downloaded by more than 22 million people

  • Prevents 1 million infections, 44,000 hospitalisations, and 9,600 deaths

Co-innovation advances medtech

The global pandemic may have felt like a once-in-a-generation event, but the likelihood of further COVID-19-scale pandemics could triple in the coming decades – exacerbated by climate change.

The scale and complexity of this challenge  calls for a new breed of problem solving that’s optimised for speed, scale, and borderless collaboration. We have a far greater chance at innovating digital health solutions at scale when knowledge, capabilities, and diverse industries are connected – by data and a common goal – as part of an innovation ecosystem.

The COVID-19 response was a huge step forward in this direction, with unprecedented knowledge sharing and data-empowered co-innovation between diverse parties – across science, technology, government, civil society, and beyond.

For the NHS, the progress made towards becoming a cloud- and data-enabled organisation will be essential for playing an active and valuable role in evolving medical ecosystems. 

Together with Zühlke, the organisation was able to transform anonymised test and trace app data into valuable, actionable, and democratised knowledge. This data capability will be essential for helping to co-create tomorrow’s medical solutions and push the boundaries of public health innovation.

Read on to discover how the NHS COVID-19 app – the first certified mobile medical device in the UK – advanced digital health and showed the value of collaboration and co-innovation.

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Discover how Zühlke’s award-winning team enabled the rapid development of the NHS COVID-19 app and supporting infrastructure in just 12 weeks!

The challenge

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) oversees the UK's National Health Service (NHS), with the aim to help people live more independent, healthier lives for longer.

When the global pandemic hit, however, the DHSC needed to take on a very different role – that of an agile tech startup. That’s because the health department recognised the vital role that data and apps could play in containing the rapid spread of COVID-19. As the world entered lockdown, pressure mounted to accelerate medtech innovation and find a way to reduce the rate of infection and protect lives.

In these challenging conditions, the DHSC and its executive agency, UKHSA (previously PHE), urgently needed to:

  • Help contain the spread of the virus, prevent infection, and alleviate pressure on the NHS with a medically approved contact tracing smartphone app.
  • Gain the agility to adapt to changing priorities and needs across core workstreams.

The test and trace solution needed to be designed, built, tested, approved, and launched within 12 weeks, and it needed to support six critical features:

  • Trace: alert app users when they’ve been near other users who tested positive for coronavirus.
  • Alert: enable people to understand the level of risk in their area.
  • Check-in: alert people who checked into a particular venue if they may have encountered people who tested positive.
  • Symptoms: allow people to check whether they have coronavirus symptoms and whether they need to order a free test.
  • Test: enable people to book a test and get their result quickly.
  • Isolate: allow people to track their self-isolation countdown and access relevant advice.
nhs covid-19 app on a screen in womans hands

What we did

Despite the challenging conditions, we designed, developed, user tested, and launched the beta app in just six weeks – complete with all six mandated features and class 1 ‘medical device’ classification from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Together with the DHSC, we established a multi-disciplinary working group including policy makers, researchers, designers, engineers, plus experts in security, ethics, accessibility and other areas.

This borderless and multidisciplinary approach to innovation – together with our lean delivery approaches and cloud infrastructure – gave the health department the speed and agility to develop and scale the NHS COVID-19 app in just 12 weeks.

Following the national app launch, we designed, developed and deployed new features, such as the ability to search and apply for self-isolation support payments. Each week we continued to launch app updates in line with changing pandemic conditions, policy and guidance.

Key focus areas in our collaboration with DHSC included:

  • Scalability: the reliability and scalability of our cloud-based, Amazon-powered infrastructure was essential for supporting the app’s 22+ million users.
  • Security: we worked closely with the National Centre for Cyber Security (NCSC) who ran surprise scenario tests to ensure the app was secure.
  • Compliance: we ensure the app passed Government Digital Service(GDS) assessments throughout its product lifecycle and adhered to NHS service standards.
  • Customer centricity: we iterated designs and conducted ongoing user research and testing to ensure the app catered to a diverse audience. We ensured the app was accessible and compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
  • Data-led decision making: real-time, secure, and anonymised data from the app was used to identify trends and inform and facilitate government policy-making.
  • Collaborative innovation: together with our innovation partners Google and Apple, we co-innovated ways to improve the accuracy and performance of contact tracing APIs. 
  • Trust through transparency: we made sure that information about all app updates was publicly available. This helped address privacy concerns – together with the Bluetooth-based Google / Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) system which protected app users’ personal information.
  • Stability: our team ensured always-on technical support, and the app never experienced a major incident – despite the huge volume of active users.
nhs covid-19 app on a screen in a hand of a person

The results

Together with the DHSC and our ecosystem partners, we designed and delivered a medically approved mobile app and scalable supporting infrastructure in record time.

The app was downloaded by more than 22 million people – and analysis from leading science journal, Nature, estimates that it averted 1 million cases during its first year. This corresponds to 44,000 hospitalisations avoided and 10,000 deaths prevented.

Together, our teams and partners pushed the boundaries of medical apps and demonstrated the vital role they can play as public health tools.

The collaboration also showed their value as low-cost alternatives to medical hardware. The engineering budget to build the NHS app was less than 50p per user, and the app was delivered on time, under budget, and with no significant outages.