As if things were not going badly enough for the UK's COVID-19 test-and-trace service, it now seems police will be able to access some test data, prompting fears the disclosure could deter people who should have tests from coming forward.
As revealed in the Health Service Journal [paywall], the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the National Police Chiefs' Council have agreed that officers can access test results to determine whether or not a "specific individual" has been told to self-isolate. A failure to self-isolate after getting a positive COVID-19 test, or being in contact with someone who has tested positive, could result in a police fine of £1,000, or even a £10,000 penalty for serial offenders or those seriously breaking the rules. Hence, the plod's interest in knowing who is supposed to be self-isolating.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson 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 DHSC has agreed a memorandum of understanding with the National Police Chiefs Council to enable police forces to have access on a case-by-case basis to information that enables them to know if a specific individual has been notified to self-isolate.
We are already concerned that some people are deterred from being tested because they are anxious about loss of income should they need to self-isolate – and we are worried should police involvement add to this
"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."
Others are concerned about the influence data sharing with police may have on people's willingness to use the service, considered a vital plank of the UK's efforts to contain a second wave of the novel coronavirus outbreak. To be clear the test-and-trace service at issue here is separate from the various NHS contact-tracing apps. The people behind the application for England and Wales, for instance, said: "The app cannot be used to track your location, for law enforcement, or to monitor self-isolation and social distancing."
A spokesperson for doctors union the British Medical Association said: "For the test and trace system to be effective it needs to have the full confidence of the public, with transparency about the appropriate and secure use of their data. We are already concerned that some people are deterred from being tested because they are anxious about loss of income should they need to self-isolate – and we are worried should police involvement add to this."
The UK government's emphasis should be on providing support to people – financial and otherwise – if they need to self-isolate, so that no one is deterred from coming forward for a test, the BMA spokesperson added.
The UK's test-and-trace system, backed by £12bn in public money, was outsourced to Serco for £45m in June. Sitel is also a provider. The service has had a bumpy ride to say the least. Earlier this month, it came to light that as many as 48,000 people were not informed they had come in close contact with people who had tested positive, as the service under-reported 15,841 novel coronavirus cases between 25 September and 2 October.
The use of Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet program in transferring test results from labs to the health service was at the heart of the problem. A plausible explanation emerged that test results were automatically fetched in CSV format by officials from various commercial testing labs, and stored in rows in an older .XLS Excel format that limited the number of rows to 65,536 per spreadsheet, rather than the one-million row limit offered by the modern .XLSX file format. Each test result took up several rows, so each sheet could really only hold a limited number of results, causing the rest to be left off and go missing.
But that was not the only misstep. It has emerged that people in line for a coronavirus test were sent to a site in Sevenoaks, Kent, where, in fact, no test centre existed, according to reports.
Despite concerns about test-and-trace performance, the private sector service provider Serco increased its annual revenue guidance to £3.9bn from £3.7bn and underlying trading profit to £165m. Serco said its part in the test and trace programme was "limited and specific." ®