Last week I downloaded the NHS App. I don’t mean the NHS Covid app – I have that too but disabled it months ago because it endlessly pinged messages telling me I’d been exposed to Covid when I hadn’t even left the house.
The NHS App has, apparently, been knocking around for years, offering a way for patients to book appointments, order repeat prescriptions and view medical records. But I’d never heard of it prior to this month, when it was announced it would become our default Covid passport: a way of displaying our vaccination status.
We are likely to need it to go abroad – just showing that card they give you when you have a jab won’t work. Roughly 50,000 Britons have been downloading it every day since this relaunch, and I decided to join them. I’ve already used it to order a repeat prescription for my eczema cream, which took seconds. It was ready to collect from my local Boots the next day.
It can also be used to search for NHS-backed health advice (type in your condition or symptom and it comes up with a list of web-pages) and contact NHS111. There’s access to the eConsult service, too, so you can have a virtual appointment, filling in all your concerns, which is then sent to your surgery that will then get in touch.
As soon as I managed to sign in (more about that later) I could click through to a screen that shows that I had my first Covid jab on May 1.
It even has the brand (Vaxzevria – otherwise known as the AstraZeneca jab) and batch-number. The ‘share your Covid-19 status’ button takes you to a screen with one of those whizzy QR code images.
This can be scanned by the camera on another phone or device – held by, say, Border Control officers – transferring your Covid status data so it can be read and logged. Nifty, I thought.
The NHS App has been knocking around for years, offering a way for patients to book appointments, order repeat prescriptions and view medical records
Predictably, there has been a fair amount of shroud-waving by people who say they’re deeply concerned about privacy and the creeping hand of Big State as some people have suggested it might also be required for entry to concerts, museums and other venues.
Objectors say blocking access to certain areas of life for those not jabbed, in effect, means you’re forcing people to have it. And, they add, what about those who can’t have the jab? Well, to be honest, there are vanishingly few valid reasons not to get vaccinated, beyond simply not wanting to be.
Pregnant women are fine to have it, according to numerous studies.
Those who have a specific allergy to Covid vaccine ingredients will need to take medical advice but even then, the ingredients differ between vaccines so there’s always a suitable alternative.
Likewise, people with blood-clotting problems are being advised not to have the AstraZeneca jab, which has been linked to a slightly increased risk of blood clots, but they can have the Pfizer or Moderna jab. We’ll soon have one from Johnson & Johnson, and potentially Valneva, from France, and Novavax, from America. You might be advised to wait if you’re currently fighting an infection, or about to have brain surgery. But other than this, there are basically no illnesses or conditions that would preclude someone from having this jab.
Should those who ‘just say no’ be forced? Absolutely not. Should businesses say: no jab, no entry? I can see why they would.
There are gaps for the app: roughly one in ten Britons don’t have a smartphone, and older phones might not be compatible with the app. But there is an NHS App website where you can do all the same things, such as order prescriptions and talk to a doctor, and print off your Covid status, too.
There are about four million Britons over the age of 65 who do not use the internet. But they can call 119 and ask for a letter confirming their vaccine status.
Our resident GP, Dr Ellie Cannon, is a huge fan of the app and the whole concept – and mentioned it in her column last week. In response, dozens of readers wrote in, pointing out much of what I’ve mentioned above. Others said they’d downloaded the app but found it difficult to use. I didn’t find it all that straightforward either – although I was an exception among my colleagues, who all managed to get to grips with it in seconds.
But it was worth persevering, and now I’d say I’m pretty much an evangelist.
The first thing you have to do is prove your identity. You upload a picture of your passport or driving licence – I chose the latter, which I now think might have been a mistake as the picture isn’t all that clear – and then the app takes a scan of your face, using the camera in your phone. There are all sorts of psychedelic flashing lights emitted by the screen as you do this. It told me I’d not been recognised. I was then asked to record a video of myself saying a series of numbers. A few days later I got an email back saying: still not recognised.
I then tried uploading my passport as my proof of identity. The initial scan again didn’t recognise me, but the video method did work. I got an email overnight saying I’d been approved.
Those who have a specific allergy to Covid vaccine ingredients will need to take medical advice but even then, the ingredients differ between vaccines so there’s always a suitable alternative
I called my mum, who’s 74 and a retired oncologist. She was way ahead of me, having downloaded it ‘weeks ago’. Her vaccine status was there, full and complete. She’d already used it to view her GP patient records and order a repeat prescription. But she said a friend had difficulty accessing her hospital test results on it. This latter point is a technical one.
creating easily accessible, comprehensive online patient records isn’t as simple as it sounds. The data is held in different computer formats depending on where you are treated. This makes aggregating it a tricky job. Some local health authorities have employed third-party tech companies to help them with this. Others have not, and so service, when it comes to records viewable via the app, is patchy.
My colleague, Deputy Health Editor Eve Simmons, could see her notes going back decades, including childhood vaccinations. I, on the other hand, having recently changed GP surgery, could see only my current medications. I have contacted my practice, via the app, to try to remedy this, so fingers crossed.
My (younger) colleagues have rolled their eyes at my struggles, although I’m no Luddite. I suppose it’s always a bit of a headbanger, trying to learn a new ‘system’. But the NHS App is intuitive – especially the Covid passport bit, prescriptions and contacting your GP.
I can imagine there will be some who just give up – so might need some extra support. I’m saying this with my dear old dad in mind.
A retired GP, aged 75, he has a smartphone which we bought him a few years back. He was very resistant to this, and said his 1996 Nokia was just fine. And he barely used his new device for anything except phone calls. He was particularly resentful about WhatsApp: ‘I don’t want people sending me texts whenever they feel like it.’
But he was recently in hospital for an operation, and finally started to respond to our messages. He even took a few selfies, which was helpful as we weren’t allowed to visit and see how he was. Yesterday, I messaged him on WhatsApp asking if he’d got the NHS App. He replied: ‘No… don’t know much about apps and suspect I don’t want any.’ He followed this with: ‘Bet you didn’t know there is now a pill to transfer the pain of childbirth to the father… video to follow.’
My point is, this is something else he’s got the hang of with a bit of persistence. So I do hold out hope for the NHS App.