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'It's a no brainer': MPs demand introduction of privacy law before launching NHS contact tracing app nationwide

Harriet Harman says she is 'at a loss' why ministers have failed to bring legislation forward

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 19 May 2020 16:40 BST
The app never worked, and most of the people who seem to know about these things never thought it would
The app never worked, and most of the people who seem to know about these things never thought it would (AFP/Getty)

MPs are demanding the introduction of a new privacy law before the nationwide roll-out of the NHS smartphone app designed to track new infections of coronavirus across the country.

Former deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman, who chairs Westminster’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, said she was "at a loss" why ministers had so far failed to bring a Bill forward to the Commons addressing concerns over privacy.

The app, which is currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight before the government rolls out the technology across the country, is viewed as a vital mechanism in reducing the transmission of the virus alongside a mass testing programme.

But in a briefing for journalists on Tuesday, the chair of the cross-party committee said the contact tracing app required a “bespoke” piece of legislation, giving the public concrete assurances their privacy and data will be protected.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, had previously insisted the government did not believe legislation was “necessary” to deliver the NHS contact tracing app, insisting it was consistent with the powers of ministers “at a time of national crisis in the interests of protecting public health”.

In a letter to MPs on the committee on 4 May, Mr Hancock sought to address privacy concerns, claiming all data will be protected and that the government intends to “withdraw the app once the epidemic is over”.

However, Ms Harman said: “So he’s given that assurance, but actually a letter does not provide any protection, even a letter from Matt Hancock. A Bill does, it needs to be in law. We know the government is absolutely overwhelmed so what we’ve done is we’ve drafted with our professional drafts people, we’ve actually drafted a Bill which is ready for introduction.”

Recognising the “overwhelming” pressures coronavirus has created for ministers, the Joint Committee on Human Rights urged the government to adopt a draft Bill they have drawn up with experts. The proposed legislation requires the appointment of a privacy tzar to deal with complaints surrounding the app, and provide guarantees that all of the data will be erased when the coronavirus crisis is over.

“The data gathered for this purpose should be protected,” Ms Harman added. “That is the responsibility on the state.

“They [the state] have got commensurate responsibility to make sure the data thereby gathered is only used for the purposes they want it to be used for and is not accessed by anybody else for any other purpose and is deleted at the end of it all,” she said. “It’s also important in terms of ensuring there’s confidence in it such that people are prepared to download and stick with the app.”

Ms Harman said she believed the legislation could pass through the Commons and the Lords in time for the contact tracing app to be rolled out across the UK, adding: “We seen when the new powers were introduced they were done by agreement and that they were done swiftly. I think both Houses could agree swiftly for this Bill to come into law.”

“It is really a bit of a no brainer for the government to adopt this Bill. I’ve written to Matt Hancock and said you can have this Bill, have it as a government Bill, rather than find out it’s necessary half way down the line. We wrote to him on 7 May, but we haven’t heard from it yet.”

She added: “At the moment, I’m just at a loss why the government having given these assurances, wanting the data to work, wanting the contact tracing app to work, wouldn’t actually bring this Bill forward.”

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