The problem with test, track and trace

One of the big questions asked about the UK’s response to COVID-19 is why we did not respond in the same way as South Korea. It’s a good question. If any country represents a true outlier in terms of significantly lower death rates, then South Korea is the best candidate.

I recently noted in an article that when South Korea was hit by another virus leading to deaths, it so spooked the government there that they put into place a response plan to protect from other viral outbreaks leading to epidemics. One journal report explains:

Legislation enacted since then gave the government authority to collect mobile phone, credit card, and other data from those who test positive to reconstruct their recent whereabouts. That information, stripped of personal identifiers, is shared on social media apps that allow others to determine whether they may have crossed paths with an infected person.[1]

In other words, in order to protect against the threat of epidemic and mass deaths, the Government chose to introduce powers enabling them to significantly restrict personal freedoms and invade personal privacy.  I believe that this shows why it would have been practically impossible for us to follow the same process here from the start. In the past, Governments have attempted to introduce powers to monitor and detain in order to protect against terrorism. Yet such powers have generally been seen as worse than the threat they seek to counter. We love our freedom and we love our privacy.

My gut instinct on this has been somewhat confirmed by this tweet and the interaction with it.

Even at this stage of the virus, there is a nervousness about the introduction of monitoring apps and an understandable reluctance on the part of people to give up their freedom and their privacy to the Government.

I am not saying that those who object are wrong. I understand and share some of the discomfort at this.  However, we do need to recognise that each day choices made and priorities determined. If we believe that loss of personal privacy is too high a price to pay, then that is a reasonable argument to make but we need to also be aware that this will affect the methods used to fight the pandemic.

It is therefore helpful to stop and think about what we value and how we prioritise our values. We see certain rights as essential and non-negotiable but is that really true? For what cause and what reasons would I be willing to give up any of my rights?


[1] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/coronavirus-cases-have-dropped-sharply-south-korea-whats-secret-its-success

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