The leader of the House of Commons has rejected calls for new privacy legislation despite concerns over the NHS COVID-19 tracing app.
Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights had urged the government to introduce new data laws to protect people who use the tracing app after warnings their information could be kept for research purposes.
But despite its warning of an “inevitable data breach”, it revealed on Monday that the leader of the House of Commons, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, had knocked back its proposal.
Last month, the committee sent a draft of its bill to health secretary Matt Hancock. A week later, it sent its bill to Rees-Mogg, asking if the government did not intend to adopt it as one of its own bills, then if it would allow its chair, Labour MP Harriet Harman, to introduce it as a Private Members Bill.
Letter to @HumanRightsCtte from @Jacob_Rees_Mogg rejecting Covid tracing privacy bill. Govt should agree new laws for privacy rights. Do it now. Don't wait for otherwise inevitable data breach.— UK Parliament Human Rights Committee (@HumanRightsCtte) June 1, 2020
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The bill would have set out who can access the app’s data and required it to be deleted at the end of the coronavirus pandemic.
But in a written reply to Harman, Rees-Mogg said that he understood she had received a reply from health secretary Matt Hancock “explaining that new legislation to govern contract tracing is not necessary”.
Rees-Mogg wrote: “I support this assessment.”
He said Hancock had highlighted in his own letter the “government’s commitment to ensuring transparency, security and privacy as the response to coronavirus continues”.
Harman has expressed that government assurances over the app do not “cut the mustard”.
Last month, she wrote to Hancock to urge him to reverse his view “that new legislation to protect data gathered under the Test Trace Isolate programme is not necessary”.
She wrote: “We remain concerned that the assurances that you gave to us about data protection are not met in the current legal framework and to assist you we have undertaken a comparison between the protections currently in place and those afforded by our bill.
“It is not possible to maintain the case that the current patchwork of protections is adequate to protect privacy under this necessary but unprecedented data gathering exercise.
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“These new powers require new protections. It is important as a matter of principle for the government to do all it can to protect the privacy of its citizens.”
Using Bluetooth, the app keeps an anonymised log of other people also using the app who have been in close contact with the user.
If someone shows COVID-19 symptoms, they can inform the app, which will instruct anyone who has been near them to self-isolate.
The first trial phase of the NHS COVID-19 tracing app was launched on the Isle of Wight last month.
A date has not yet been set for a nationwide rollout, with the government only saying it will happen in “the coming weeks”.
There has been criticism of the government’s decision to ease England’s coronavirus lockdown on Monday without a nationwide tracing app system in place.
Some of the government’s own science advisers and public health officials have said lockdown has been eased too quickly, even though the coronavirus threat level remains at its second highest setting.
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