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Covid-19: Information Sharing with Police Forces

Volume 806: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the legal basis for their Memorandum of Understanding with the National Police Chiefs’ Council which allows police forces to access information that tells such forces if a specific individual has been told to self-isolate due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) Regulations 2020 authorised the police, local authorities and NHS Test and Trace to share information where necessary for the purposes of enforcement. The Department of Health and Social Care and the National Police Chiefs’ Council have agreed a memorandum of understanding so that, when given a report that someone is failing to self-isolate, the police can check with NHS Test and Trace whether the person in question has been formally notified to self-isolate.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister but does he agree that sharing what is essentially health information with the police is a highly sensitive matter? This should not have been sneaked out on a Friday night without any parliamentary reference whatsoever. Was NHS experts’ advice taken regarding the impact this might have on people prepared to take the test? Is the Minister aware of the advice given by the BMA and other health service organisations, particularly in relation to harder-to-reach communities, that this may dampen down the numbers of people coming forward for tests? Was that taken into account?

My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord that no health information is shared. This is isolation information, not health information. I can tell that the noble Lord is not happy with that. I reassure him that people are asked to isolate for a number of reasons: it might be because they tested positive, or because they were close to someone who tested positive, so the fact that they have been asked to isolate has got nothing to do with the state of their health.

We are discussing this regulation on Thursday. That will give us an opportunity to go into it further, which I look forward to very much indeed. On the impact of taking the test, we have looked at public attitudes to the principle and enforcement of isolation. It enjoys an enormous amount of public support, and I think the noble Lord underestimates those in the BAME community and their response to this responsible approach to isolation.

I welcome the principles set out in the memorandum of understanding on prosecutions, and Regulations 12, 13 and 14. In particular, I welcome the fact that there will be regular reviews, both locally and nationally, so that lessons can be learned. Will the reviews be published, and will the Minister confirm that there is a 12-month limit on prosecutions if evidence is available?

My Lords, those are two very important and clear questions. However, I will have to take them back to the department and write to the noble Lord with very clear answers.

My Lords, despite what the Minister says, this memorandum of understanding has undermined some people’s trust in test and trace. The best way to deal with that is to shed the light of transparency on to what is actually in the MoU. Therefore, will the Government commit to publishing it?

My Lords, I commit to publishing the memorandum of understanding; that is our intention. It has to be cleared of some officials’ names and redacted accordingly, and, when we have gone through that process, we will publish it. I will address the noble Lord’s central point, which is very reasonable, and I am glad he made it because he and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, are entirely right: there is a balance here between the principle of consent, which is how we went about implementing a great many of our measures, and the principle of effectiveness.

We are quite late now in the stage of the epidemic. I think it reasonable to demonstrate the seriousness of the principle of isolation, to make what isolation means crystal clear—and, therefore, in statute—and for the sanction of the law to apply to those people who do not have a responsible attitude and have behaved irresponsibly. It is not our intention to rack up a large number of prosecutions in this area, as it has not been in other areas. However, it is our intention to be clear and determined and to make this incredibly important part of our breaking the chain of transmission as effective as possible.

Understandably, this news has caused much confusion: you only need to take to social media to see people’s anxieties. As I understand it, the app keeps all data locally on your phone and only when you upload a positive test does it then become more widely available, although anonymised. What measures are the Government going to take to make sure that communications are crystal clear, so that people can totally understand the privacy implications of what they are doing? It seems there is still much anxiety about exactly what can be done.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her insight, but I reassure her that the information on the app is not covered by this memorandum of understanding. That is a principle that has been made very clear by the NHS app. This is the data held on CTAS, the Public Health England database, and it remains the property of Public Health England; the MoU is very specific about that. As the noble Baroness is aware, the app is a distributed source of information; it has extremely high privacy barriers, and this MoU does not in any way breach those barriers.

It is disingenuous for the Minister to say, in answer to my noble friend Lord Hunt, that this is not a health issue. Following on from the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, I imagine the police will have been concerned about the implications for data protection for both themselves and individuals. Therefore, I ask the Minister how personal data that is being handed over to the police is going to be stored. Who will keep it and how will it be handled? Are any discussions on data-sharing taking place or planned involving the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Home Office or Cabinet Office?

My Lords, the data collected by PHE for the test and trace service is held, as I said, by the Contract Tracing and Advisory Service database—the CTAS database—and it will be provided to the police on request. It is not a question of a wholesale sharing of all data. The data that can be shared with the police are the recorded name and contact details of an individual who has been instructed to self-isolate, the date on which they were told to self-isolate and the date on which the period of self-isolation ends. No testing data or health data are shared with the police at all.

Do we have a defined national police strategy on the policing of breaches of self-isolation, or will we see a patchwork of implementation by different chief constables across the country?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. The intention of this legislation is threefold: first, to increase public understanding of the importance of self-isolation; secondly, to help to support people to comply with self-isolation by making sure that they understand the consequences of breaking those rules; and, thirdly, to introduce fixed penalty notices for those who do not follow the rules. Our intention is not to enforce a surveillance culture around this; it is instead to leave it to members of the public to take it into their own hands as to whether they would like to share instances of breaches with the police, and to give the police an opportunity to follow up those reports in a timely, accurate and efficient fashion.

My Lords, in an earlier answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, the Minister seemed to suggest that the noble Lord was casting aspersions against the BAME community with regard to their willingness or not to sign up because of data-sharing with the police. Would he like to take back that slur? Could he also please tell me which BAME communities he spoke to before imposing these conditions?

I am grateful for that important question. At no point would I ever wish to cast any aspersions or slur at the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who I count as a close colleague and someone whose opinion I respect enormously. However, I was replying in response to his question about BAME communities. We are deeply involved in talking to a large number of those communities, which have traditionally been hard to reach. We are engaged with them on many levels to talk to them about how we can address the marketing challenge of getting our messages to them, how we can shape our messages so that they are fully understood, and how we can address any concerns they may have about the test and trace programme.

I can report to the noble Baroness that we have been extremely pleased by the very encouraging responses that we have had from those communities, which is why I do not think it is reasonable to assume that any particular community would be more or less suspicious of this programme than another.

My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked, and that brings the Private Notice Question to an end.