Thu 24 June 2021

Tasnim Nazeer reports on how the Government’s troubled smartphone app will only exacerbate the health inequalities exposed by the Coronavirus pandemic

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The Government’s ‘track and trace’ app has raised concerns that it may the exacerbate health inequalities exposed by the Coronavirus pandemic.

The app went live on the 5 May after initially being trialled on the Isle of Wight and is due to be rolled out across the UK this month. The Government hopes that, through the app, people with Coronavirus symptoms or those they have been in contact with can be tracked and told to isolate.

But, concerns have been voiced that the app is unlikely to be used by those who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, including those in deprived areas and from black and ethnic minority groups.

Fatima Mohamed, 81, told Byline Times: “I don’t even have a mobile phone. I would not know how to use it. We are most vulnerable but the Government chooses this as a way of combatting COVID-19.”

New research by the Health Foundation and Ipsos Mori revealed that there is a “significant digital divide along the lines of occupation, educational level and age” in terms of those likely to use the app. Only 62% of those surveyed said they were likely to download the app – mostly people in managerial, administrative or professional jobs. For pensioners and the unemployed, the figure fell by 50%. The research also highlighted the detrimental effects of inequality with many people not having access to a smartphone – one of the most significant reasons why people said they would be unable to download the app.

Adam Steventon, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation, said that while the NHS app would play a critical role in the fight against COVID-19 it would also reflect an existing digital divide.

“The impact of COVID-19 is already being felt unequally across society and appears to be having a disproportionate impact on people living in more deprived areas, older people, and some ethnic minorities,” he told Byline Times. “Within that context, it’s especially concerning that people in lower paid jobs and those with less formal education say they are less likely to download and use the app, and of course not everyone has a smartphone.”

Amos Toh, senior researcher of artificial intelligence at Human Rights Watch said that there is little evidence to show that “general pivot to digital contact tracing will help communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic”.

“Our research has found that marginalised groups, from migrant workers to unhoused people, don’t enjoy individualised and stable smartphone access – a key assumption baked into the design of most COVID-19 tracking apps,” he said.

Healthcare workers also have concerns about the app.

Dr Toni Hazell, a GP from Tottenham in north London, highlighted the fact that online healthcare is convenient for many but risks leaving behind some of the more vulnerable in society: “Many of my patients who are elderly, living in poverty or have poor mental health do not have access to a mobile phone or to the internet and we need to make sure that these people are thought about when policy is made in this area.”

Sally Warren, Director of Policy at The King’s Fund think tank, said that “people who have been worst affected by the virus are generally those who had worse health outcomes before the pandemic, including people working in lower-paid professions, those from ethnic minority backgrounds and people living in poorer areas”.

“The scandal is not that the virus has disproportionately affected certain groups, but that it has taken a global pandemic to shine a light on deeply entrenched health inequalities,” she added.

Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care both refused to comment.

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