NHS and government bodies will not be constrained, regulator and health secretary indicate
Public sector organisations responding to coronavirus will not face regulatory action under data-protection laws, the Information Commissioner’s Office has said.
Over the last few days, the regulator has issued updates and guidance indicating its commitment to take a “pragmatic” approach to its duties during the ongoing crisis. This, it said, means taking into account the “compelling public interest” in allowing NHS and government to respond to the pandemic with a speed and flexibility that may be at odds with carrying out data-protection measures with the usual stringency.
Consequently, the watchdog has said that it will not be taking any regulatory action against agencies responding to the coronavirus.
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“We understand that resources, whether they are finances or people, might be diverted away from usual compliance or information governance work,” the ICO said. “We won’t penalise organisations that we know need to prioritise other areas or adapt their usual approach during this extraordinary period.”
It added: “We can’t extend statutory timescales, but we will tell people through our own communications channels that they may experience understandable delays when making information rights requests during the pandemic.”
This message was reiterated by health secretary Matt Hancock, who tweeted to say that responding to coronavirus should take precedence over the requirements set out in the General Data Protection Regulation.
“GDPR does not inhibit use of data for coronavirus response,” he said. “GDPR has a clause excepting work in the overwhelming public interest. No one should constrain work on responding to coronavirus due to data protection laws. We are all having to give up some of our liberties; rights under GDPR have always been balanced against other public interests.”
Elsewhere in its guidance, the ICO said that regulation did not prevent public sector bodies sending unsolicited “public health messages”, nor is it prohibitive to using remote consultations and homeworking measures where necessary.
“Public bodies may require additional collection and sharing of personal data to protect against serious threats to public health,” it added.
Regulation also need not be considered a barrier to providing updates to staff on internal cases of infection and, if required, sharing employee health information with the relevant authorities.