Sturgeon warns public that restrictions could be tightened | SNP to hold virtual annual conference | Scot Govt say George Floyd protests not allowed
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07/02/2020 | View in browser
Why outsourcing and secrecy is the route to contact tracing and testing failure

A panic about contact tracing in Minnesota, United States, spread after Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said that they were "contact tracing" protestors there.

"As we’ve begun making arrests, we have begun analysing the data of who we have arrested and begun actually doing what we think is almost pretty similar to our Covid [strategy]. It’s contact tracing."

Harrington's press office later clarified that this did not mean they were using data from the public health contact tracing system to identify protestors, and that he had used the term "as a metaphor". Nonetheless, it heightened concerns that the technology could be used in this way by authorities. Officials admitted that they don't have any laws restricting the use of the contact tracing system solely to public health purposes, as the system is "too new" to have such legislative restrictions "attached to it".

A lack of trust in the contact tracing and testing systems being introduced by governments will fatally undermine them before they have even begun. This is the fundamental contraction of a data intensive state that is both required for public health efforts but is also a powerful repressive apparatus. The data age provides infinite possibilities for real-time information and co-ordination, but in the wrong hands it is also the most powerful technological tool for surveillance and coercion ever known. We know already from the Snowden files that the US National Security Agency has worked with platform-data giants and other secret service agencies (including in the UK) to gather data on hundreds of millions of people across the world, without their permission. So a lack of trust in these institutions is not paranoia, it is an understandable response based on what we know about how they operate.

Naomi Klein has written about the emergence of a Covid-19 'Screen New Deal', where the corporate-state nexus is already adapting to the new pandemic world by becoming ever more integrated around data, to re-shape the nature of our cities and our working lives. Key to this is an embrace of centralised outsourcing on a scale not previously seen, something the UK Governmenthas been quick to embrace in its response to the pandemic, transferring NHS duties to the private sector.

David McCoy, professor of global public health at Queen Mary University of London, has written that this approach has been applied to England's contact tracing and testing system, and it is already a disaster. Baroness Dido Harding has admitted the system will not be fully operational until the end of June. A plethora of outsourced contracts, including to Randox, Deloitte, Serco, G4S and Sodexo, have not been made public, but we already know what some of the problems look like: Serco has set-up a centralised call centre to handle contact tracing communication with staff paid £8.72 an hour, totally at odds with localised systems of expert contact tracers in Germany and South Korea, two of the most successful examples of this system.

"Viewing contact tracers as customer service call handlers may be a good business model for Serco, but I would like to know if a single public health specialist in this country thinks this was a good idea," McCoy writes.

The centralised approach doesn't work because "contact tracing is fundamentally a behavioural intervention"; the data needs to be combined with human know-how and contact at the local level. This is an important lesson for the data age as a whole: the use of human-beings with skills to analyse and empathise may not be necessary for corporate platforms seeking to cut costs to a minimum, but it is necessary if you want data-led approaches to actually work effectively on the ground as ultimately they exist (or should exist) to meet the needs of humans. That's just one reason why we should worry about our data being put into the hands of Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerburg.

Thankfully, it appears as if Scotland's system does avoid most of the pit-falls of England's. The software is being delivered through an NHS system, there are some privacy safeguards and there is a localised aspect to it. There still appears to be a shortage of contact tracers hired on the ground though, but at the moment the evidence suggests Scotland's system is likely to lead to better outcomes than England's.

This should be built on going forward: privatisation and outsourcing undermines the capacities of the state, and lack of transparency in data undermines citizens trust in the state. Open-source data based on public ownership that is decentralised and democratic is the route to success for countries navigating the data age.
Ben Wray, Source Direct
Top Story

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has warned that lockdown laws could be tightened again if current restrictions continue to be flouted by a "minority".

She said that most people had complied with restrictions to keep gatherings small and not to travel, but that police had to issue 1,391 complaint dispersals over Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with another 650 groups broke up after a "police warning".

The A82 at Loch Lomond saw a 200 per cent increase in road usage between the Saturday past and the week before, according to Transport Scotland statistics, with road use across Scotland up 70 per cent.

The Scottish Government's first easing restrictions began over the weekend, with two different households allowed to meet in groups of no more than eight, but it coincided with the best weather of the year so far, and saw a marked change in behaviour, especially at beauty spots.

Sturgeon said: "It's worth being clear that if there is continued evidence of even a minority not abiding by these guidelines and travelling unnecessarily, or meeting up in larger groups, we will have to put these restrictions on group size and travel distance into law.

"We will not hesitate to do that if it is necessary for the collective wellbeing of society."

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Other news

  • The SNP are looking at holding their annual conference in the autumn online this year. The move comes after the Spring conference and National Assembly events had been cancelled, but "all the options" are being looked at for future events to go ahead. (The National)
  • The Scottish Government has said it understands "why people feel so strongly about the death of George Floyd", but that mass gatherings "are not allowed". Stand Up to Racism is set to hold a physically distanced 'solidarity action' in Edinburgh at 6pm tonight, and Black Lives Matter events are scheduled for Glasgow and Edinburgh on Sunday, June 7. (The National)
  • The UK Government is going ahead with plans to limit the number of students from England who can enrol at universities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, despite opposition from the devolved governments. The student cap would restrict universities to taking their forecast intake plus 5 per cent, and is designed to prevent competition for students between English universities, but the Scottish Government says it could come at the expense of damaging Scottish universities by restricting numbers. (The Guardian)
  • A plane carrying 10 million surgical items arrived in Scotland from China on Monday, taking the total number of medical products secured through that supply route since the crisis began to almost 60 million. The PPE is for health and social care workers. (STV)
  • More than half of Scots are eating more during lockdown, according to a new survey. 54 per cent are consuming more since lockdown began in March. 35 per cent said their diets had worsened and 63 per cent said they were worried about their body weight. Obesity Action Scotland, which conducted the survey, said the Scottish Government should include healthy eating policies in response and recovery plans. (Third Force News)
  • Shelter Scotland has said that tenants who have lost loved ones during the pandemic should be protected from losing their home. The warning comes after the case of Peter O'Rourke in Glasgow who moved in with his partner Shirley Craig three years ago into her Housing Association flat, but there was no official record taken. Craig died from Covid-19 in April and now O'Rourke faces eviction just two months later. (Scottish Housing News)
New on Source
Around and about the Scottish media
- The Solidarity Against Neoliberal Extremism Collective have written to Susan Aitken, leader of Glasgow City Council, calling on her to re-think plans for the Council's economic recovery group (Bella Caledonia)

- Richard Leonard says Scotland must tackle youth unemployment (The Scotsman)
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