Alongside a secure NHS app, we must adopt a strategy of community shielding
"I’m also concerned that in the understandable rush to develop the NHS App corners will be cut and the data will leak," writes Baroness Jones | Credit: PA Images
The data-sharing safeguards of a contract-tracing app have to be watertight. However, the real work of safeguarding should be done by local communities.
There's a good chance that the bonds of empathy and goodwill that bind many communities together will emerge from the Covid-19 crisis a lot stronger. We should be building on that feeling of connectedness by adopting a strategy of community shielding as we emerge from lockdown.
The big advantage of a community led system of tracking and tracing is that it comes with a dollop of kindness and personal connection. Self-isolation can be scary for the elderly and vulnerable who develop symptoms and fear they could die alone. Community shielding creates a support network, so that no one is cut off.
The personal and local connection is missing with any government strategy of tracking and tracing that relies upon an app, and/or government run phone banks.
There are also major problems of privacy and trust that Parliament need to consider, especially if they act on their intention to create immunity passports.
The World Health Organisation has advised against ‘immunity certificates’, yet the idea is still being floated in the media by technology companies eager to get their hands on such a huge goldmine of personal data.
I won’t deny the powerful necessity of getting the economy working again with people being able to show they have both anti-bodies and immunity, but there are no guarantees.
It’s probable that many who have had the disease will be immune, but we don’t know if all will, or for how long that will last.
Even if Immunity Certificates become a feasible idea for Covid-19 are they a good idea? I'm reassured by the government's separation of the NHS app (being trailled on the Isle of Wight) and the immunity passports, but both have potential problems with personal privacy.
Some people can’t afford a smart phone, while many elderly people find them difficult to operate.
Commercial apps that can trace your movements are regularly used by most people in the UK for specific functions or games on our phones. A health service ‘Covid-19’ app appears to make sense. Health professionals could use it to test everyone who had gone to the same hairdressers as you, or to a particular café. If it works, it might be useful, but only if enough of us opt in and there are lots of reasons why many of us simply wouldn’t.
Some people can’t afford a smart phone, while many elderly people find them difficult to operate. This not only gives us gaps in the system but excludes two groups of people who are hit hardest by Coivd-19.
Another section of the population might be suspicious about who is behind the app and unconvinced by the promised safeguards on the use of the data.
As well as the danger of short-term abuse, there is also the longer-term dangers of this being used as a dry run for such technology becoming compulsory.
A big brother state would not only be able to track you, but to see who you met up with. As visitors under quarantine in South Korea are finding out, staying still, or letting your phone battery go flat, will elicit a flurry of landline calls and visits to check if you are still in your hotel room.
Some of the technology companies are keen to match it up with facial recognition technology as a way of keeping tabs on our movements, so none of us can opt out of having the app. Drones could be deployed to cover the blind-spots outside of CCTV networks.
I’m also concerned that in the understandable rush to develop the NHS app corners will be cut and the data will leak. Has the App passed basic cybersecurity tests, or can it be hacked?
Will the data sharing between the NHS, councils and private companies involve any data where individuals are identifiable?
Will the data be deleted after its primary purpose is served?
The NHS has adopted a centralised App rejected by the likes of Germany after privacy concerns. As I understand it, the encryption will hopefully ensure that nothing about our movements is shared until we tell it that we have symptoms, but then our daily movements will be accessible on the NHS server.
The decentralised system offered by Apple and Google works from phone to phone, which notifies individuals but doesn’t give the government an overview of the diseases spread.
I’m not ruling out the use of an NHS App, but the safeguards on data sharing have to be so watertight that the likes of Cummings will be screaming red tape.
As with the Immunity Passport idea, Parliament needs to evaluate the full social, economic and health impacts of such a scheme and pass legislation, rather than Ministers enacting it all via secondary legislation.
However, the real work of racking and safeguarding should be done by local communities and utilise the thousands of public health trained officers who are available to local authorities.