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Testing and tracing for Covid-19 must be fair – and proportionate

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Equal access to testing and robust privacy are key to delivering a successful track and trace regime for coronavirus.

The coronavirus pandemic has already transformed the way we live, and things aren’t going back to normal any time soon.

As the government begins to ease the lockdown restrictions and workers return to work, testing and tracing will be pivotal to reducing and containing the spread of Covid-19.

The TUC supports the public health case for testing and tracing, but we want access to testing to be fair and equal.

And any personal data collected by the government as part of that process must be responsible and proportionate.

And while the government plans to push ahead with a tracing app, many employers are also looking at putting in place their own testing and monitoring regimes.

That’s why in a new report published today , we urge the government to take steps to ensure wide access to testing services and strong protection of people’s data, including consultation with unions when new technology is introduced to the workplace.

Testing and tracing regimes for coronavirus will only be effective if people trust them. That means involving and consulting workers and their unions from the outset.

How testing should work

All workers, including casualised and agency workers, need access to Covid-19 testing when they need it if we’re to limit the spread of the virus and get the economy back on track.

Priority must be given to those in at-risk and shielding groups, or those who care for individuals in those groups.

The government must act on best intelligence and a sound understanding of the nation’s infrastructure when making decisions about its testing policies.

This means consulting with unions to take the following steps:

  • Making it clear that workers are entitled to paid time off at their usual rate of hourly pay to attend testing during their usual working hours.

  • Making testing locations and opening hours easily accessible for workers.

  • Ensuring home testing is available for workers who cannot travel safely to test sites.

Employers that seek to introduce a workplace testing scheme, whether they intend it to be obligatory or voluntary, should consult with trade unions.

This would cover issues like the purpose of testing, the processing of data, and guidelines for those who have been tested but are awaiting results.

Concerns about tracing and privacy

Both the UK government and some employers are keen to introduce tracing of Covid-19 cases.

The government’s NHSX tracing app has already been mired in privacy concerns . As a result, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (a body of MPs and peers) has recommended against rolling out the app nationally without a number of guarantees, which include the following:

  • Privacy protections enshrined in primary legislation.

  • Oversight by an independent body.

  • Transparency over what data is collected and its use.

The committee believes the legislation should prohibit data sharing with employers.

It has also produced a draft bill that would prevent the government from using the information gathered for any other purpose than fighting Covid-19 and require it to delete all the data after the pandemic ends.

No excuse for surveillance at work

These are important recommendations, but we also have to consider how else to protect workers at a time when some employers are reportedly panic-buying monitoring kits and others are looking to acquire new technologies developed by private companies like Siemens and PWC .

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, employers were increasingly collecting health-related personal data from the workforce.

For example, some have used sleep monitoring devices to enhance productivity by helping ensure their workers are well rested.

There are great risks with placing data from tracing apps in the hands of employers who may already have access to other data on their workforce.

Many of these data collection utlities have the potential to encroach on a worker’s personal life, particularly with devices that collect health related data.

This could lead to employers using data to make workforce decisions that are unfair, unsafe and discriminatory.

Rigorous data protection standards must therefore be developed and upheld for both national and workplace tracking and tracing.

How tracing should work

Employers should be prevented from having access to data gleaned from any state-run app.

Existing privacy rules, including those embedded in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), must be respected.

And contact-tracing apps should only be used in the workplace if specific requirements are met.

Employers should clearly explain the purpose of the app, the type of data that will be collected, and how long the data will be kept.

Workers must give their consent and trade unions should have a legal right to be consulted before an employer starts to collect data and make data-driven decisions in the workplace.

Without our trust this just isn’t going to work

Robust privacy rules and good access to testing are key to building the necessary trust for the roll-out of testing and tracing of Covid-19 cases.

We recognise the public health need for successful track and tracing of the coronavirus.

But that must not come at a cost to workers’ privacy or be done without their consent. And it needs to be fair to every worker.

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