MALCOLM ZOPPI | LEGAL JARGON WRITER
The Track and Trace system that has been put in place in England aims to avoid a second wave of COVID-19 by forcing into self-isolation those who have been in close contact with a positive-testing individual. The system relies on the individuals’ ability to know and remember the people with whom they have been in close contact with “within a nine-day period, starting 48 hours before symptoms appeared” (BBC News, 2020). The positive-testing people will need to provide an extensive list of personal information to the NHS Test and Trace website, along with contact information of those with whom they have had close contact with.
Close contact has been defined as “people you've spent 15 minutes or more with at a distance of less than 2m (6ft)” or “sexual partners, household members or people you have had face-to-face conversations with at a distance of less than 1m”.
Organisations have also been asked by the government to “collect details and maintain records of staff, customers and visitors on their premises to support NHS Test and Trace” (gov.uk, 2020).
A trial of the Coronavirus app is ongoing. The app will use the citizens’ phones to track and trace where they have been, with whom they have been in close contact and for how long. The large amounts of data will be analysed and stored so that individuals can be tracked and traced. For now, the app is only available to residents in the Isle of Wight, the London Borough of Newham.
The Possible Commercial Implications:
An ‘obvious’ implication of the system is that it will lead to many people having to self-isolate for two weeks. This will reduce the number of active workers who are producing and contributing to the economy’s GDP, as not all jobs can be performed remotely. This is especially true for blue-collar workers, who may even face redundancies as businesses are experiencing difficult times. Further, there have been calls for the government to financially support those who must self-isolate. This is due to the worries of redundancies and limited salaries.
Having large amounts of people self-isolate will also reduce their ability to spend, restricting the amount of consumption. These implications have been proven to be problematic from Phases 0 and 1, as they will ultimately lead to less revenue being produced and spent, preventing the economy to attempt a recovery from the pandemic.
The track and trace system is not a long-term solution. We cannot continuously ask people to self-isolate for extended periods merely because they have been nearby a positive-testing person. Tests will need to be made more efficient in terms of cost and time. This is so that rather than isolating all the ‘tracked’ citizens, those at risk of being positive can be tested instead. Although it is a more costly alternative, large-scale testing will enable people to self-isolate less and continue living as freely as possible.
The Possible Legal Implications:
Legal implications may include the possible breaches of privacy rights. Privacy campaigners argued that the system has not been properly evaluated for its possible breaches on privacy rights, while the government countered that there is no evidence of data being used unlawfully. The system has been criticised for being rushed out and having “unsafe processing practices”. Also, there have been incidents of contact tracers posting private patient data on WhatsApp and Facebook group chats.
Although, by abandoning a centralised NHS contact-tracing app, the decentralised app will enable for more privacy, as it has been favoured by privacy campaigners. This system is being developed based on the Apple-Google toolkit.
What also needs to be analysed is the extent to which the government is asking for information, and for how long this will proceed. The precedent has now been set for the government’s possibility to track and trace its citizens. The role of legal scholars and human right activists will be to hold the government to account if the Big Brother-like system is pushed to extremes.
Questions for Individual Thinking:
Is the 14-day self-isolation procedure for all who have been in close contact with positive-testing individuals a proportionate response?
Should the track and trace system be abolished as soon as a vaccine is available to the public?
Should the government provide economic support for those who are in self-isolation as a consequence of someone else testing positive?
Born in Switzerland, grew up in the Bahamas, studying in England, completed an Erasmus year in Denmark, and now living in Spain.
Malcolm prides himself on his internationality and ability to analyse current affairs from different perspectives.
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