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Ethics board warns contact tracing apps could amplify inequality

Apple and Google Partner On COVID-19 Contact Tracing Technology
Apple and Google Partner On COVID-19 Contact Tracing Technology (Image credit: Google)

What you need to know

  • An Ethics Board has warned the NHS that its contact tracing app could exacerbate inequality.
  • That's because 21% of British adults don't own a smartphone.
  • The warning highlights the wider global limitation of contact tracing.

An ethics board has warned the NHS that its contact tracing app could amplify inequality in the UK, on the basis that 21% of adults do not own a smartphone.

The Financial Times notes the board's fears that many potential users in the country "will not have up-to-date smartphones - or any device at all."

In the letter, penned April 24 and published yesterday, chair of the COVID-19 app's Ethics Advisory Board Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery writes:

Ofcom data suggests that 21% of UK adults do not use a smartphone. While the community benefits of a contact tracing app should still extend to this group, an increase in manual contact tracing is a crucial additional measure which will enhance the effectiveness of the public health approach and build public confidence. If the app becomes a tool for accessing currently restricted services or freedoms, such as permission to return to work, to use public transport, or to enjoy other freedoms, this would drastically alter the value proposition of the app and potentially introduce new levels of inequity which would need to be identified and addressed.

Montgomery further urges "a consideration of the extent to which the app could introduce or exacerbate inequities."

Recent data from the UK's Office of National Statistics has revealed that the poorest parts of England, Wales, and Scotland are all more likely to bear the brunt of COVID-19 infection. From that report:

The government must prioritise health funding for the most deprived regions in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, politicians and public health experts have demanded, after new data analysis revealed the devastating scale of the death toll in the poorest parts of England and Wales.

Contact tracing by way of an app could further highlight this divide, as it requires a smartphone to be functional. Recent estimates peg the UK's adult population at over 53 million. The 21% gap in smartphone adoption means that more than 10 million people may be excluded, and it is likely that many of these will be more elderly members of the population who are not digitally enabled or the poorer members of society who can't afford to buy a smartphone.

These problems, of course, are not limited to the UK, nowhere globally is smartphone adoption universal, and as with the UK, it is highly plausible that two significant limiting factors are age and wealth. The report notes that this highlights the need to focus not only on contact tracing through apps and smartphones but also on using health workers through more traditional means of communication.

Beyond inequality, Montgomery also highlighted that the speed at which at the app is being developed should "not undermine the importance of scrutiny or the need for transparency". He also noted that commitments should not be made to citizens to maximize adoption of the app, which are then reversed at a later date, noting that this "would profoundly damage public trust."

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6 Comments
  • We already know this and its something the government will need to look at working on. Why is it when something is done there is aways someone giving all the bad information. How about we all pull together in this and help each other. 1 man manged to raise millions for the NHS doing laps of his garden at an old age. How about people who carried out this study look at helping the poor and % of people without a smart phone get one / have a way of tracking them and raise money for it/get a grant? We really are backwords as a humans.
  • 21% seems high, I know the USA is a different country but I don't know anyone without a smartphone.
  • How many people over the age of 60 do you know? Over 70? 80? What about people outside of your economic bracket?
  • I would think the over 70 crowd is precisely where the majority of those without smart phones reside. This age group should be staying at home anyway.
  • Nearly anyone who doesn't have a smartphone in a modern first-world country today doesn't have one because they don't want one. If people decide that they want tyrants tracking their every move in the guise of security, they will most certainly be able get a smartphone without much fuss. I mean. I can run to Walmart and get one right now for $30 WITH a prepaid by-the-minute plan. What I find fascinating is the great dilemma in the minds of people who are so eager to strip liberty from the population, but are naturally hindered by their fairly-tale sensibilities of politically correct equality. So let's just quickly correct our thinking on this. Equality of OUTCOME is a false paradigm that seeks to shove everyone into a box of conformity by assuming that if everyone has the same options they will all produce the same outcomes. It denies free will, and also denies the reality that some people are more than happy to be lazy, or evil, or whatever. The attempt to bring about equality of OUTCOME leads to tyranny as authoritarians demand people conform to their ideas and expectations in order to bring about said outcomes. What we should strive for is equality of OPPORTUNITY. That each person has access to a framework of success (or in this case access to being tracked like a slave) if they are willing to put in the effort. Yes some in life will need to put in more effort than others, that's how life goes, but everyone has access to the OPPORTUNITIES if they have the will. This is liberty. This is what we should strive for. And if we did, then we wouldn't be so concerned about having to choose between tyranny and political correctness...wouldn't that be nice...
  • The idea that this will cause inequality assumes that the 79% of adults who do own a smartphone will use the app. Which is one hell of an assumption.