A new digital service was launched today to support businesses collecting personal information of visitors in order to speed up the national Covid-19 contact tracing system.

More than 6,400 venues have already signed up to ‘check in Scotland’, the voluntary service for businesses in Scotland designed by the Scottish Government, NHS, Public Health Scotland, Cap Gemini and Microsoft.

The check in service will allow people to quickly and securely provide their contact details by scanning the official Test & Protect check in Scotland QR code poster – which should be displayed by businesses – via their smartphone camera or by downloading the official app.

Any contact details collected will be held in a ‘secure, encrypted data store’ unique to each venue for 21 days. Unless information is requested by public health officials as part of their contact tracing efforts, visitor data is automatically deleted on day 22, with data ‘not used for any other purpose.’

Businesses being urged to use check in Scotland include:

  • pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes
  • tourism and leisure businesses, such as theme parks, museums and cinemas
  • close contact services, including hairdressers, barbers, beauticians, tattooists, sports and massage therapists
  • services run by local councils, such as libraries, leisure centres and registration offices
  • cremation authorities, burial authorities, places of worship or funeral director service rooms offering funeral services
  • places of worship

Chief medical officer Dr Gregor Smith said: “As travel, retail and hospitality restrictions begin to ease and venues start to re-open, it’s vital that any close contacts of new positive cases can be quickly contacted and given advice to self-isolate.

“Check in Scotland is designed to give businesses an easy way to collect contact details from customers for contact tracing purposes. It is entirely voluntary and up to individual venues to decide what method they prefer to use to collect the required contact details.

“Together with the Protect Scotland app, check in Scotland will help contact tracers reach people faster if there are coronavirus (Covid-19) cases linked to a venue they have recently visited. The faster we can contact people who might have been exposed to Covid-19, the faster we can stop the spread of the virus, and keep moving towards the return of everyday activities.”

The check in Scotland service is designed to complement the separate Protect Scotland app, which alerts users if they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.

Deryck Mitchelson, director of national digital and information security at the NHS who played a vital role in developing the new service, said: “[There were] privacy and security challenges when it came to ensuring that the data collected was properly encrypted and not available unless it was needed for outbreak management purposes which would be fully audited and controlled.”

The team carried out modelling based on the number of hospitality venues in Scotland. Mitchelson said: “Given how extensively the app will be used and in particular at peak times – Friday evening and weekends – we worked closely with Microsoft on the scalability of the service to consume more at busier times and less when quiet.”

This means the system will grow when there are more transactions going through it, and shrink back down when there is less traffic, as opposed to “paying for a big system to be running all the time”.

He added: “We would expect that nearly all hospitality venues should use a QR app for managing visitors. It is a better visitor experience and more secure. There are other QR apps available but this is the only one which fully integrates into our contact tracing application. This will speed up any contact tracing activities if someone tests positive and visits a venue. Time to contact trace is essential in breaking the chain of infection.”

He is urging members of the public to visit venues that use smart technology. 

“If the venue doesn’t have one of these systems to scan in using a smart device, and they’re writing your details in a book, there’s no safeguards on that at all. The book is normally sitting open, people are writing their names underneath someone else’s name above, it’s the easiest thing in the world to take a picture of someone else’s phone number, name or address that they write down – and where does a book get stored overnight? Who gets access to that book? Do they tear pages out the book after 21 days and burn them? Or does it just sit there, probably going as far back as whenever the book started.”

So far, feedback from venues so far has been positive. Mitchelson said: “The big advantage clearly of this system is that the venue never actually sees the details at all. So the venues quite like that. It’s a system that once they implement it, and they’ve got the QR code on the wall, they can just get on with actually providing great service.”

The Atholl Arms Hotel in Dunkeld is one of the thousands of venues who have signed up to the service. Managing director, Zsolt Balogh, said it is “the best option on the market at the moment” and setting it up “took two minutes”.

The Atholl Arms decided to sign up to the check in service after receiving information about it from their local council.

According to Balogh, the reaction from customers has been “a little bit mixed, but once we explained everyone agreed how easy it was to use it . A bit more media coverage would help.” 

How it will work

Alerts will be sent by SMS, email or letter depending on what details users provide and will be clearly marked as being from NHS Scotland Test and Protect.

People will only be advised to self-isolate if contact tracers believe they were in close contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. Otherwise they may be advised to watch out for symptoms of Covid-19, and to book a test only if they or someone in their household displays symptoms.

The check in Scotland app is available to download for free via the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store for anyone over the age of 12.

Users must be able to access the internet on a phone or tablet. The service has been designed to work across the vast majority of mobile phones that support internet browsers.

For older phones that cannot read QR codes, a QR code reading app can be downloaded. If this doesn’t work, a short URL printed on check in Scotland posters can be typed into a phone’s internet browser.

If customers and visitors do not have a mobile phone or cannot access the internet, the business or venue they are visiting must take their contact details with a pen and paper.

For more information, go to: mygov.scot/help-qr-check-in

Photo: Shutterstock/Arina_vo