Civil liberties groups slam Matt Hancock over test and trace threat

Civil liberty campaigners hit out at ‘draconian intrusion of privacy’ after Matt Hancock’s threat to issue fines for people not obeying 14-day test and trace isolation orders

  • Groups hit out over threat of forced 14-day quarantine for test and trace scheme
  • It comes as the NHS Test and Trace scheme faced issues on its first official day 
  • Other groups have raised concerns over how people’s data will be stored safely
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Civil liberties groups have today slammed threats by health chiefs to fine Britons who do not obey the 14-day test and trace isolation rules – which have been dubbed a ‘draconian intrusion of privacy’.

As he launched the government’s new test and trace system, Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday warned a fortnight-long quarantine for those thought to have coronavirus could be made mandatory if citizen did not do ‘the right thing’ and stay at home when told.

But while bosses behind the scheme said fines were not to be imposed from the off, they issued a bold-faced threat that Mr Hancock could introduce financial penalties if necessary.

The threat has prompted fury from civil liberties groups, with one warning a 14-day quarantine could be ‘unimaginably disruptive to people’s lives’.

Civil liberties groups have today slammed threats by health chiefs to fine Britons who do not obey the 14-day test and trace isolation rules – which have been dubbed a ‘draconian intrusion of privacy’. Pictured: Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the NHS Test and Trace scheme yesterday

This diagram shows how the government’s Test and Trace scheme, officially launched today, is set to work

They have also raised concerns about the government’s handling of personal data needed for the test and trace scheme to work, as well as the mounting emergency powers of police and authorities following the coronavirus outbreak.   

Emma Webb, of the Civitas think-tank, told MailOnline: ‘Hancock’s threat of making it mandatory if we fail to comply voluntarily means it’s not meaningfully voluntary in the first place.



The government’s coronavirus contact tracing site crashed on launch this morning, it was claimed. But a Department of Health spokesman denied that the whole system had crashed.


Staff reported major teething troubles, with some saying they had not even received passwords to start work. The Independent reported that some staff were still unable to log-in at 11.30am because of the error. 


Two giant drive-thru test centres where symptomatic Brits can get swabbed for the virus were deserted – despite the launch. Staff at Twickenham rugby ground and a newly opened site at Heathrow Airport stood around in the sunshine with barely a trickle of cars arriving for pre-booked tests.


Ikea reclaimed a key testing location in west London because it wants to reopen. That site closed down on Wednesday as the flat pack furniture store is due to re-open next week.


Workers manning the phones revealed they have been paid a flat day-rate of £75 to sit and do nothing. One warned there was ‘nothing we can do’ about Brits who refuse to give names and telephone numbers of potential contacts.


NHS providers chief executive Chris Hopson said ‘very key bits’ were still not operational. ‘We’re in the process of building test and trace,’ Mr Hopson told BBC Newsnight.


One member of staff told MailOnline members of her team had failed to complete clinical information training which meant they were not allowed to talk with people diagnosed with Covid-19.


Matt Hancock was told it was ‘not a laughing matter’ as he chuckled at suggestions he had rushed the system in before it is actually ready. Sky News presenter Kay Burley pointed out that Mr Hancock had previously branded the app ‘absolutely essential’. But as Mr Hancock dissolved into giggles, she added: ‘Many of my viewers will think it is not a laughing matter.’

‘Certainly, test and trace could provide a means to get things moving again, but at what cost?

‘Of course, it is likely only to work effectively if everyone takes part, but many people will see this as a draconian intrusion on their privacy by the State; it shouldn’t be mandatory.

‘It could also be unimaginably disruptive to people’s lives.’ 

Meanwhile, other groups have called for MPs to be able to fully scrutinise any legislation meaning isolation would become mandatory.   

Katrina French, chief executive of StopWatch, a campaign group for fair and accountable policing, said:  ‘We do have some concerns.

‘We are aware we are in the middle of a health pandemic and the need to get infection levels down.

‘However, we have issues with the 14-day isolation, in that is could go from voluntary to mandatory. 

‘We want primary legislation in place and for this to be properly debated and scrutinised by MPs.’

Ms French said the group was particularly concerned about the new powers in relation to the disproportionate impact coronavirus has had on the BAME community – with figures showing the virus has had a higher death rate among ethnic minorities.

The concern comes as yesterday the government finally unveiled its test and trace plan.

NHS Test and Trace – seen as key to easing lockdown – is being rolled out across England with the help of 25,000 contact tracers.  

Under the plans, anyone with symptoms will immediately self-isolate and book a test, either at a testing centre or delivered to their home. Their household should start a 14-day isolation period too.

If the test proves negative, everyone comes out of isolation.

But if the test is positive, NHS contact tracers or local public health teams will call, email or send a text asking them to share details of the people they have been in close contact with and places they have visited.

The team then emails or texts those close contacts, telling them they must stay home for 14 days even if they have no symptoms, to avoid unknowingly spreading the virus.

At its launch yesterday, Mr Hancock called on every individual to ‘do their bit’.

He said: ‘It is your civic duty. This will be voluntary at first because we trust everyone to do the right thing, but we can quickly make it mandatory if that’s what it takes.’

Baroness Dido Harding, who is leading the programme, said they are ‘not launching with fines or penalties for those who don’t isolate’ but that Matt Hancock ‘does have the public health legal ability to impose fines and penalties.’   

But one day into the scheme and it has already faced reported hiccups. 

The accompanying app is still delayed by several weeks, while NHS have chiefs warned ‘key bits’ of the system are not yet operational and it cannot be described as ‘world class’.

MPs said they were told by the head of NHS Test and Trace, Baroness Dido Harding, that the local element will not be fully in place until the end of June.

MPs said they were told by the head of NHS Test and Trace, Baroness Dido Harding (pictured), that the local element will not be fully in place until the end of June

One worker manning the phones of the test and trace system today told MailOnline she had been paid to sit and do nothing, and warned there was ‘nothing we can do’ about infected Brits who refuse to hand over the names and telephone numbers of people they came into close contact with.

The former shop assistant, who asked not to be named, said she was being paid £75 a day – regardless if she made any calls.   


The Test and Trace system will fail to work effectively if statutory sick pay is not increased, the Government has been warned.

Those self-isolating will be eligible for statutory sick pay but there are fears that many workers will not be able to afford to isolate and will be forced to keep working.

NHS Test and Trace – seen as key to easing the coronavirus lockdown restrictions – will be rolled out across England on Thursday, and there are concerns that people could be asked to self-isolate for period of 14 days more than once in the coming weeks.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘We need a testing and tracing programme up and running as soon as possible.

‘But it will not be effective if workers are pushed into hardship when they are required to self-isolate. Statutory sick pay is just £95 per week – and two million workers aren’t even eligible for that.

‘If workers can’t afford to self-isolate, then they will be forced to keep working. That will put them, their workmates and their local community at risk, and undermine the entire Test and Trace programme.

‘The Government must extend statutory sick pay to everyone – no matter what they’re paid – and raise it to the level of the real Living Wage, £260 per week.

‘And the self-employed income support scheme must remain in place as a source of financial support for those forced to self-isolate. That’s how to show that we really are all in this together.’

Statutory sick pay stands at £95.85 per week, and according to the Government website you could get it if you cannot work and are self-isolating.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for ‘enhanced’ sick pay when he was asked about the new system and people being expected to self-isolate for 14 days if contacted.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘There will be people whose work conditions and employment conditions make that difficult for them so they need that security, they need enhanced sick pay where necessary to make sure they stay at home.

‘But, of course, it is perfectly possible that you could isolate for 14 days, come out, meet somebody else again whose got the virus and have to go back in. So this could be a huge burden for people.’ 

There were also claims today that the NHS trace and test website for doctors had crashed this morning.

One contact tracer told LBC radio it had been a ‘complete shambles’ so far, and they had not received their logon details for the site.

A Department of Health spokesman denied that the whole system had crashed.

‘Anyone in the country can log on and book a test if they have symptoms and we have tracers logged on to do their vital work to help stop the spread of coronavirus and save lives,’ the spokesman said.

‘As with all large scale operations of this kind, some staff did initially encounter issues logging on to their systems and these are rapidly being resolved.’  

Details of those who test positive are passed to a company called Sitel who are running the track and trace teams across the UK.

Agents read from a prepared script when they are given the name and telephone number of a person who has been diagnosed with Covid-19.

They ask for the details of friends and family the infected person has come into contact with during the previous 7-14 days. The tracing agent then contact with those on their list and informs them they have to self isolate.

The agent said they do not make any follow up telephone calls to check the people contacted are self isolating.

An army of 25,000 people have been hired at £10 an hour to act as the front line of the track and trace operation.  

The job was advertised on the online employment site Indeed. All employees were given a series of online tutorials explaining how the system works. Agents are asked to use their own home computer but do not use their own mobile phones and instead make calls over the internet.

During training the agent said she often sat at home doing nothing while waiting for a password to arrive to be able to log into the system.

She told MailOnline: ‘I am contracted for 7.5 hours a day at £10 an hour and will be paid regardless of any calls I make. We are getting more people getting in touch about working at the track and trace places – with definite teething problems.’

Another track and trace agent said the system was a ‘shambles’ with many of his team unable to log into a NHS website needed to start work.

The worker said he had been able to log into the system and was ready to receive the names of people infected with the virus – but had not yet made a single call.

Like others he is being paid £10 an hour regardless of any making any calls.

The worker told MailOnline: ‘I was able to log into the system with the password and have been sat here a few hours since starting my shift. There hasn’t been a single email for people I should contact. It’s a bit frustrating as I’d like to help.’

The agent, who is based at his home in Shropshire, said he had been told to expect to speak with one or two people a day who have been diagnosed with the illness.

He would then contact those people who have been in close contact with the person infected and ask them to self isolate.

But like many others among the 25,000 employed as the track and trace team he has heard there were problems.

‘I’m part of a team of 30 and we all connected via computer. I know many have spent the morning trying to log into the NHS website but have failed. 

‘They have contacted their team leader who is doing their best to try and sort it, but to be honest from the Government side of things it’s a bit of a shambles. I know everything has teething problems, but to be honest I thought they would have been ironed out by the time we went live.’

Today, Mr Hancock laughed of criticism over delays in the contact tracing app, which was meant to accompany the system. 

In an interview with Sky New’s Kay Burley, he argued that the target of getting contact tracing up and running by June 1 had still been met.

‘It’s priceless, Kay. I’m normally accused of delaying these things and bringing them in too slowly… you can’t accuse me both of rushing it and it being delayed,’ he said.

Mr Hancock insisted the Government is moving at ‘just at the right speed’ with the test and trace plan.

‘One of the things we learnt in the pilot on the Isle of Wight was that getting people used to that idea is important to do before we then also add the technological capability, the app, on top,’ he said.

Meanwhile, civil liberties groups have also raised concerns about the handling of people’s data which will be needed for the upcoming app to work. 

This week, NHS officials were said to be racing to introduce greater privacy safeguards for the contact-tracing app amid mounting concern from security experts, MPs and users.

The concern centres around the central database which will contain anonymised records of those reporting symptoms and who their phone has come in contact with.

Gracie Bradley, Policy and Campaigns Manager at Liberty, said: ‘The new track and trace system was launched suddenly, with many unanswered questions.  

‘It could create a less restrictive way to protect public health but we haven’t heard how our personal data is going to be safeguarded and we don’t know how they’re going to encourage compliance without risking more arbitrary police enforcement. 

‘This is especially worrying given the draconian new powers in the Coronavirus Act which allow for police detention, forcible testing, and indefinite compulsory quarantine.   

‘We don’t know how this data collection fits with the planned ‘NHS Dashboard’ and what role will be played by Big Tech companies working on that project.

‘We haven’t been given critical guarantees this data will only be used for public health and deleted as soon as possible.

‘This is particularly concerning for people who have experienced the effects of Government data-sharing, such as NHS data being used to enforce the Hostile Environment policy.

‘The only thing we do know is they want to keep our data for 20 years, but they haven’t said why they’re taking this alarming step.

‘Now more than ever public trust is needed for this system to work. Without far more transparency and a real commitment to protecting our rights, the Government risks critically undermining that trust.’   

Meanwhile, Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties group, also raised significant concerns about how data in the tracing app will be used and for what purpose.

She said: ‘There is no justification for keeping data for 20 years.’ 

Meanwhile Amnesty International has also concerns about the data issue with the  NHSX app and has written to the government asking for clarity.

Rachel Logan, Amnesty UK’s Law and Human Rights Programme Director, said: ‘These are exceptional circumstances and we of course all want to do everything we can to beat this virus.

‘But very important concerns around the current choice to adopt a centralised model, and issues like accessibility and transparency, still remain unanswered.

‘Amnesty has written to the Health Secretary setting out key principles to inform the UK Government’s decision about any roll-out of the current choice of COVID-19 contact-tracing app.

‘At this crucial time it is critical that these are addressed so that people can properly understand what is being proposed and why.’

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