The UK Government has been urged to launch a thorough investigation after the email addresses of a total of 296 new recruits to its COVID-19 contact-tracing programme were shared due to an error.
It's never been clear what expertise Serco brings to contact tracing. It now appears they are struggling with basic aspects of data privacy. We need clarity from Govt about why and how Serco came to be awarded this contract and reassurances that contact tracing is in safe hands. pic.twitter.com/0zWFR9WYYN— Rachel Reeves (@RachelReevesMP) May 22, 2020
Labour shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves has written a letter to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, demanding swift action to restore public confidence following the incident.
“To ease the lockdown restrictions, a proper system of test, trace and isolate needs to be in place. The Government needs to make sure it is and that the public have faith in it. It has never been clear what expertise or specialist knowledge Serco can bring to contact tracing,” said Reeves.
Questioning how the outsourcing company had come to be awarded the contract in the first place, Reeves continues:
“It now appears that they are struggling to implement even basic aspects of data privacy. We need some clarity from the Government about why and how Serco came to be awarded this contract and we need reassurances that the contract tracing programme is in safe hands. The Prime Minister has promised it will be up and running by June 1, if we are to ease lockdown safely then it is essential that the Government gets this right.”
Serco Apologises, Vows ‘Review’
Earlier, Serco, an outsourcing company that specialises in public sector work, apologised and pledged to “review its processes” after accidentally sharing almost 300 email addresses of new contact tracers recruited to help the government’s COVID-19 “test, track and trace” strategy, the BBC reported.
The error occurred when the company emailed new trainees to share details about the training. People had signed up to support efforts to track and trace cases of coronavirus respiratory infection to help reduce the spread of the disease in the UK.
A total of 296 addresses were included in a CC (carbon copy) section of the email, rendering them visible to recipients, rather than BCC (blind carbon copy).
Serco vowed measures "to make sure that this does not happen again".
Britain’s government has started implementing a system already being used in countries such as Germany, Singapore, and South Korea, hiring 21,000 contact tracers who would aid efforts to identify people who have been in recent contact with someone displaying coronavirus symptoms.
Serco is among several companies responsible for recruiting, training and managing the 15,000 contact tracers lacking specific clinical training.
Those have voiced concerns in the wake of the error emphasize that although patients' data was in no way involved in the incident, a contact tracing project that will potentially request thousands of people who have fallen ill to share details of their friends and acquaintances cannot afford such privacy failings.
Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was right for Serco to apologise.
“It brings into stark relief the importance of privacy about confidentiality which underpins all of this… With the app being developed as well, the government has got that issue of privacy very much in mind in making sure that we can have maximum confidence, because these systems will only work if we get a significant part of the population taking part,” said Buckland.
‘World-beating’ Contact Tracing System
The news comes as concerns were raised by National Health Service (NHS) authorities earlier that time was running out to finalise the test, track and trace strategy to avoid a possible resurgence in coronavirus cases in the absence of a vaccine.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged to introduce a "world-beating" contact tracing system in England as of June, reported the BBC.
Contact tracing has been hailed as a method to identify those who may have come into contact with a COVID-19-infected person, either by means of an app or by phone and email, helping these people avoid potentially passing on the disease.
Another aspect of the method involves a location-tracking mobile app, which identifies people the patient has been in contact with.
The NHS contact tracing app is currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight and was initially meant to be launched across England in mid-May. Recent government reports suggest it will be rolled out at a later date.