Coronavirus and NHS data – 17 April 2020 update

[our update for the week after – 24th April – fitted in a tweet]

NHS England is keeping its dashboards hidden away, but the contractors building them left their contracts “accessible via an unrestricted portal” – which goes some way towards explaining why things are still hidden

Despite promises to be transparent, and to publish the Data Protection and other Impact Assessments of what they are doing – as well as the contracts and agreements they claim followed standard ‘G-Cloud’ procurement processes – NHS England and DHSC are staying true to form; demanding visibility of our data, but showing nothing in return.

This lack of transparency only fuels suspicion and mistrust –  especially when we hear the Secretary of State, after melting down in two interviews back-to-back, try blaming the tech companies for his own ‘app-happy’ mistakes. And when we learn the CEO of NHSX has to admonish his staff not to exploit their positions “for personal or corporate gain”.

If this continues much longer, such behaviour – and even more blatant attempts to rewrite history – will not only be seen as a serious transparency deficit, but will raise serious questions about the accountability of those who demand we trust what they do with our data.

“It’s for your own good” is no reassurance when those saying it won’t show how, and for what, and by who.

So where are we now?

Death statistics: Extrapolating using a rough rule of thumb, the current figures we are being given for COVID deaths represent only around 40% of those who are dying in reality. Many of whom are in care homes. Meanwhile, the continuing failure to supply sufficient PPE for both clinicians and carers is an ongoing scandal. Matt Hancock believes a single “Herculean” effort is enough; but PPE gets used up quickly. In reality, the task’s more Sisyphean.

DWP: While each week drags by for those keen to leave the house, the clock ticks even slower for those who’ve been forced onto Universal Credit. For another 2 weeks, they’re still part of a 1.4 million person queue somewhere inside DWP. Support services like Citizens Advice always have insight into the size of the peaks as more and more people claim UC, and sight also of how UC breaks. Such insights will only increase as DWP’s business processes do their business-as-usual things, and comparisons will become clearer over time.

Google and Apple announced their new shared API. Both their API, and the way they have approached it, are the right things to do in this situation. We want to take this opportunity to thank both companies for their positive and proactive outreach to responsible members of the international privacy community. Despite whining from those who made bad early choices, the NHSx tracing app will either be like all the other apps with an NHS logo, or people will install a generic one built by someone who believes in technology assisting access to health everywhere around the world.

Contact tracing: We await news on whether the NHSx app (and DP3T) will be rewritten to use the new APIs. If not, the app will only work while your phone screen is turned on, and you’re using the app – which also eats your battery. The concept of everyone on the tube staring at their phone screen which shows them the number of people they’ve ‘been in contact with’ today is not one likely to reduce public anxiety.

Tracing beyond the border of England: Given its and PHE’s remit ends at the boundary of England, when (or if) the NHSx app launches, it is not at all clear what will happen to those who are close to Wales or Scotland. It’s likely many people will not be best served by installing an app on their phone that is based on a political and bureaucratic boundary which is more limited than they are…

‘Immunity certificates’: With little more than the sound of a starting gun from Matt Hancock to go on, it is still far from clear why or how these will be useful. But harsh lessons from history tell us how such “immunoprivilege” can be actively harmful, both personally and economically; even the editor-in-chief of the Lancet has pointed out they’re not helpful. We must reserve judgement until more information is forthcoming, but for now, we have questions (to which you are welcome to add).

Perverse incentives: When bars and restaurants reopen, will the old ‘smoking areas’ be transformed into sections for those with compromised immune systems, or for those with COVID immunity? Either way, HM Government will need to avoid creating perverse incentives around self-reporting of antibody tests. NHS incentives are all for people to be honest, and to get the best care – but HM Treasury (which knows the price of everything, but perhaps the value of much much less) still won’t reassure your racist uncle that the people wearing their ‘certificates’ who ‘look a bit foreign’ have actually met the criteria. Wrong information in an already toxic culture just makes things ten times worse (or maybe half that, e.g. 5G).

As much of the magic thinking around contact tracing without mass testing dissipates, and as reality – both technical and biological – bites, we sincerely hope the next magic roundabout ride on apps for immunity measuring will itself be more… measured.