Michael Gove was forced to defend police being given personal data through the NHS Test and Trace system amid a furious privacy row yesterday.
Experts and public health officials reacted with anger when it emerged police had been given powers to request details of people who had been told to self-isolate in England.
The agreement between the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the National Police Chiefs’ Council was revealed as Test and Trace chief Dido Harding admitted the system was ‘not a silver bullet’ to tackle coronavirus.
Michael Gove was forced to defend police being given personal data through the NHS Test and Trace system amid a furious privacy row yesterday
Experts said sharing data with police would deter people from engaging with the system.
University College London professor of health psychology, Susan Michie, said the policy, revealed by the Health Service Journal, would ‘further cause distrust in the Government which is a massive problem in terms of adherence to restrictions’.
Chief executive of charity Privacy International Gus Hosein added: ‘Put simply, we don’t want people to be afraid to have an app, get a test, share contact details – key steps to combating a pandemic. The walls around this data must be greater than anything ever before in British history.’
Mr Gove said the data would be shared on a ‘case-by-case basis’, and the police were operating in a ‘very proportionate way.’
The Cabinet Office minister told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: ‘I think that, actually, the behavioural effects show that the majority of people, the overwhelming majority of people, want to be part of a national effort to fight the virus.
‘And of course there will be some, a very, very small minority, who will be heedless of the consequences of their actions.
Mr Gove said the data would be shared on a ‘case-by-case basis’, and the police were operating in a ‘very proportionate way.’ An NHS Test and Trace worker is seen above
‘But the other thing is, the police, to be fair to them, are operating things in a very proportionate way.
‘They engage and they explain well before they enforce. We all know that people make innocent errors and an appropriate word can mean that innocent error can be corrected by any of us.
‘But where you do get persistent, flagrant and deliberate breaching of the rules, then it is appropriate for action to be taken.’
A DHSC spokesman said: ‘It is a legal requirement for people who have tested positive for Covid-19 and their close contacts to self-isolate when formally notified to do so. The memorandum of understanding ensures that information is shared with appropriate safeguards and in accordance with the law. No testing or health data is shared in this process.’
People in England are legally required to self-isolate if they test positive for Covid-19, with fines starting at £1,000 for those who fail to do so, rising to £10,000 for repeat offenders or serious breaches.
Professor Lucy Yardley, of the University of Bristol, said the use of fines could mean people were too afraid to report symptoms.
‘The consequence can be that not only them, but family members and work colleagues, would be asked to self-isolate when they really couldn’t afford to,’ she said.
People in England are legally required to self-isolate if they test positive for Covid-19, with fines starting at £1,000 for those who fail to do so, rising to £10,000 for repeat offenders or serious breaches. An advertisement for the app is seen above in Manchester
When NHS Test and Trace was launched in May, Health Secretary Matt Hancock claimed it was vital to halting the spread of the virus, and that lockdown was the only way forward if it did not work.
But five months on, following a string of failures, and after NHS Test and Trace achieved its worst ever performance for reaching contacts of infected people, Baroness Harding played down its importance.
She told the Sunday Times: ‘Everyone wants to believe that Test and Trace is a silver bullet. It has never been and it never will be. The only way that we’re going to learn how to live with Covid is through a number of different interventions, of which Test and Trace is undoubtedly a very important one.’
The latest figures show 62.6 per cent of close contacts of people who tested positive for Covid in England were reached through the system in the week ending October 7. That is the lowest weekly percentage since NHS Test and Trace began, and is down from 69.5 per cent the previous week.
The latest data shows that 89,874 people tested positive for Covid-19 in England in the week to October 7 – a rise of almost two thirds compared to the previous seven days, and the highest weekly number since Test and Trace was launched at the end of May.
What can we learn from nations that got it right?
By Victoria Allen for the Daily Mail
Why has Test and Trace fallen apart in England while other countries have managed to make the system work?
The principle is simple – test people with symptoms, trace their contacts and ask them to self-isolate – but the execution has varied dramatically.
England has lagged behind countries such as South Korea, which rapidly grasped the importance of testing people and tracking their contacts.
And where Germany invested in local contact tracers, the English system relied on poorly performing call centres.
In other countries innovative ideas have been dreamed up, such as in Singapore, where older people without smartphones who cannot download the contact tracing app can instead wear Bluetooth tokens on lanyards around their neck.
But in England even the basics have gone wrong, with the system becoming overwhelmed by demand, and resulting in farcical cases where people in south London were offered tests in Aberdeen.
So what lessons could NHS Test and Trace, which Boris Johnson promised would be ‘world-beating’, learn from other countries? Germany, which has efficiently dealt with Covid since the start, added hundreds of extra people to local health protection teams for its test and trace operation.
But in England this vital part of the system was largely entrusted to call centres and people working online, several of whom were said to have spent their days being paid to watch Netflix with little or nothing to do. There was a shift to a more local approach in August, but the national system is still only managing to reach 57.6 per cent of close contacts, the latest figures show.
The old-fashioned ‘shoe-leather’ approach, of knocking on people’s doors and speaking to them in person within local areas, reaches 97.7 per cent of the same contacts.
South Korea, which has more than 600 screening centres, set up contact tracing from the beginning of its epidemic, while England was slow to start, not launching it until May, around two months after the lockdown.
While South Korea had a turnaround time of six to 24 hours for its test results in March, this country’s Test and Trace is still struggling. Mr Johnson promised to have all test results delivered within 24 hours by the end of June, except for where there were ‘insuperable’ problems.
But the latest figures show less than a third of people tested for Covid-19 in person, at a regional or local site, or a mobile testing unit, received their result within 24 hours.
Some Asian countries isolate everyone with a confirmed infection in a hospital or similar facility, while New Zealand has ‘quarantine hotels’.
This could not be done for everyone in the UK, but the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has discussed temporary accommodation for Britons who live with vulnerable people to avoid spreading the virus.
Another idea which could be worth looking at is to test the contacts of infected people, as New Zealand does, with a positive test result more likely to encourage someone to stay at home.
However, with tests in such short supply in England that Health Secretary Matt Hancock had to set out rationing criteria last month, this currently seems unlikely.
Unholy alliance that will destroy all trust
By Ross Clark for the Daily Mail
What fine words start the General Medical Council’s advice to doctors on the subject of patient confidentiality: ‘Trust is an essential part of the doctor patient relationship and confidentiality is central to this. Patients may avoid seeking medical help, or may under-report symptoms, if they think their personal information will be disclosed by doctors without consent.’
It is hard, though, to know where those words fit with the news that police forces have been granted direct access to the NHS Test and Trace database in order to snare anyone they think might be breaching instructions to self-isolate.
As things stand, the forces of law enforcement can only obtain information from the database following a request from a council or health agency which suspects somebody of breaching quarantine measures.
But under the new arrangement they will have complete freedom to check on anyone at any time, a move that will inevitably deter people from getting tested for fear of being tracked and fined.
Early in the Covid crisis the level of compliance with lockdown rules was remarkable. Even before the Commons had approved emergency legislation, the public had dutifully retreated indoors.
There was hardly any need to supervise lockdown, and when stories did start to emerge of over-zealous policing, such as officers launching drones to spy on dog walkers or wrongfully telling people they couldn’t sit in their front gardens, they tended to be followed by shamefaced apologies from the authorities concerned. The overwhelming majority of people obeyed the rules because they understood their purpose.
Since the summer, however, the relationship between individual and state has got steadily nastier. We are allowed to do more now than we were during full lockdown, yet we are threatened by an ever-lengthening list of bizarrely over-the-top fines: Up to £6,400 for not wearing a mask in a shop, up to £10,000 for leaving your home when you have been told to self-isolate, £1,000 for failing to provide names of you family members to NHS Test and Trace, £1,000 for dancing in a pub, and so on.
And now, this unholy alliance between NHS Test and Trace and the police. Has it occurred to anyone in government that dreaming up ludicrously harsh punishments might be counter-productive? It is rather as if your GP had invited the local constabulary to poke its nose through their patients’ records to prosecute anyone taking illegal drugs.
I am all for drugs laws, but it doesn’t take much imagination to predict what would happen in this scenario. No one would admit to a drug problem and therefore no drug-user would get any help.
It is the same with Covid-19. NHS Test and Trace relies on public honesty and co-operation – yet it is now undermining that. It amazes me that anyone still bothers to get tested.
We are expected to fiddle around online booking a test slot and drive to a supermarket car park a hundred miles away – only to open ourselves up to the possibility of being fined several weeks’ wages if we later get caught walking the dog on our tenth day of self-isolation.
Everyone knows there is an alternative to conforming with the test and trace system. Don’t report your symptoms, blame your cough on dust mites and decide for yourself when or if you are no longer a risk.
That is hardly public-spirited – on the contrary, it is downright irresponsible. But it is an option which increasing numbers of people are going to take if they are threatened with ever-greater fines enforced by ever-nosier police.
Remarkably, the Government doesn’t seem to have discussed the subject of police access to NHS Test and Trace with its Scientific Pandemic Insights Group On Behaviours.
One of its members, Professor Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at UCL, says that she has not been consulted.
It is absurd that so much public good will is being squandered over a system that was doomed to failure from the start.
The Government has pledged to spend £12billion on Test and Trace – all for something that its scientific advisory panel Sage says is making a ‘marginal’ difference to infection rates. It could hardly do otherwise.
Even if everyone who develops symptoms of Covid-19 faithfully reports them and submits for a test, what happens about the people – four out of every five cases, according to some studies – who don’t develop symptoms but who are still infectious?
To catch them, you would need to test everyone, every few days.
Test and trace excites the natural authoritarians who inhabit the Government, the civil service and the police. But it isn’t going to defeat the virus – it will only poison the relations between the public and the state.