Op Ed - Contact tracing is necessary but we must stay true to our liberal values

Originally in The Times

As a liberal, the idea of increasing the state’s power to monitor people’s location sends a shiver down my spine. This type of Orwellian measure is not something I ever thought I’d endorse.

Yet, following the lead of experts and learning from other countries, it appears that “contact tracing” will be a necessary component of the UK’s coronavirus exit strategy. It is vital that we put safeguards in place, and we need to start thinking about this now.

In practice, contact tracing means us giving government or a central public health agency access to our location data, through an app downloaded onto our phones. If you have symptoms, they anonymously inform anyone you’ve been ‘in contact’ with that they are at risk of infection.

Countries that introduced contact tracing early in response to coronavirus, such as South Korea and Singapore, have reaped the medical rewards. They have had fewer deaths and drastically curbed the spread of the virus.

It’s therefore no wonder that tech companies globally are racing to produce contact tracing apps. On Easter Sunday, the health secretary spoke about the NHS’s own, almost-ready app. As much as it sets liberals’ teeth on edge, it looks as though contact tracing is both inevitable and necessary as part of an exit strategy.

However, there is still a need to scrutinise the rollout of this measure to avoid disproportionate intrusion and to prevent abuse. The former head of MI5 was right to issue caution on contact tracing and call for transparency.

Recent examples of states not following best practice include South Korea, where the names of people who had tested positive or were displaying symptoms were broadcast to the people they had come into contact with. In Israel, the security services have reportedly had access to the data, for reasons as yet unknown.

The thought of authoritarian leaders across the world rolling out contact tracing indefinitely, without proper checks and balances and scrutiny, is terrifying.

Our country must do things differently. We must stay true to our liberal and democratic values. We can do this by ensuring that emergency contact tracing powers are proportionate, time-limited and kept under review.

For instance, we must combine contact tracing with a mass testing exercise. The UK government is behind other countries such as Germany on this and it is vital they up their game, because if they do then we can ensure that only those who have not yet had Covid-19 opt in.

In Iceland, a mass testing exercise has revealed that 50 per cent of the population who have had Covid-19 didn’t experience symptoms. If the UK is similar, then there are tens of thousands of people out there who already have antibodies and could be spared the invasion of privacy. If we can avoid a blanket approach we should.

Data must also be anonymised at all available parts of the process, to avoid even an accidental release of personal data to people who have come into contact with someone exhibiting symptoms. Inter-departmental sharing, or access to data beyond the original scope, should require new legislation, which will allow for scrutiny from opposition parties.

The government must also write so-called sunset clauses into all legislation, stipulating regular reviews of the effectiveness of the measures and ensuring that all personal data accrued is permanently deleted when no longer needed for the purposes of controlling the epidemic. These suggestions are very much a starting point, and non-exhaustive; I welcome additions.

During a pandemic, draconian measures such as contact tracing are uncomfortably necessary to protect the lives of the vulnerable. But we must remain true to our values by setting ourselves apart from countries whose governments are flouting best practice and attempting to use the crisis to curb democracy and extend their powers.

Our government can do this, but they need to involve opposition parties and get the right safeguards in place. If contact tracing gains our collective liberty, then I welcome this approach, but not at any cost.


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