Privacy experts and public health figures have reacted with alarm to the “potentially disastrous” UK government move to share with the police the contact details of those who have been instructed to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace.
Over the weekend it emerged that the police had been given powers to request data of individuals who have been told to self-isolate in England in an agreement between the Department of Health and Social Care and the National Police Chiefs Council.
Public health and privacy experts said the policy, first reported by the Health Service Journal, would deter individuals from engaging with the track and trace system, which experts say is vital in containing transmission of coronavirus.
Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London and a member of the government’s Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, said the move would “further cause distrust in the government which is a massive problem in terms of adherence to restrictions”.
“Where’s the consultation been on this,” she added, noting that the behavioural advisory committee had never been made aware of the policy. “It’s one more in a series of decisions that goes against what scientists have advised and which is potentially disastrous.”
Gus Hosein, executive director of UK charity Privacy International, said that health data being shared with police “reduces both confidence in public health and trust in policing”.
“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,” he said. “The walls around this data must be greater than anything ever before in British history.”
The NHS Test and Trace app tried to distance itself from the data-sharing policy.
“App users are anonymous and the app cannot force them to self-isolate or identify them if they are not self-isolating,” it said on Twitter on Sunday. “The app cannot be used to track your location, for law enforcement, or to monitor self-isolation and social distancing.”
On Friday, the government updated privacy information to state: “A police force may request information relating to positive Covid-19 tests from the NHS Test & Trace programme directly, where they are investigating a report of someone who may not be complying with the mandatory self-isolation period.”
Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, defended the move, saying that officers were operating in a “very proportionate way”.
“Where you do get persistent, flagrant and deliberate breaching of the rules, then it is appropriate for action to be taken,” he said, speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
“But the other thing is, the police, to be fair to them, are operating things so far as I can see, 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 an innocent error can be corrected by any of us.”
Some commentators have looked sympathetically on the government’s move to share personal data with the police.
“It may be that police involvement is inevitable to underpin the message that coronavirus is a deadly disease,” said Michael Hopkins, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at Sussex university. He noted that in Germany — where the test and trace system is often held up as an exemplar — individuals can be jailed for five years if they ignore quarantine rules and it leads to others being infected.
“However, other countries, including Germany, have been faster than the UK to try approaches such as maintaining contact with those in isolation and providing them with the support they need to stay at home,” he added.