The ethics of Covid-19 contact tracing

mike parker

An Oxford academic has explained how he advised the NHS on the ethical underpinning of an app designed to use contact tracing to slow the spread of Covid-19 in the UK.

Professor Michael Parker, a member of the Steering Group of the Institute for Ethics in AI in the Philosophy Faculty and Director of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, took part in a live virtual discussion with his collaborator, Professor Christophe Fraser of the Nuffield Department of Medicine.

They have been advising the NHS on the development of the app which has been rolled out this month.

Professor Parker, who advised on the ethical considerations needed for public trust and confidence when deploying an app, said the initiative will be a "key tool" in tackling Covid-19 as the UK eases its lockdown restrictions in the coming months.

He said that if an app can contribute to saving lives, there is “a prima facie obligation to use them”. But he pointed to key ethical requirements that must be met:

  • Transparency about the algorithm and current data uses
  • Commitment to equity throughout
  • Agreement about the scope of acceptable future uses of data
  • Minimal imposition on liberty and privacy compatible with addressing the public health threat
  • Clear agreement about the ‘stop’ criteria
  • Inclusive, transparent, independent, accountable oversight

Professor Parker gave an insight into his “unique opportunity” to advise on a major public health initiative. “It is extremely unusual for an ethicist to be involved in the science so early,” he said.

The speed of development required amid intense public and media scrutiny posed significant challenges. “The pressure is great because you cannot do things in a slow and reflective way you are used to as an ethicist or a scientist,” he said.

Professor Parker’s advice has ensured that ethical considerations were factored into the app from the start. “We are still in the early stages of developing the app but we have set up an independent ethical advisory board overseeing some of this process, and the use of the app is voluntary,” he said.

He said a national discussion of ethics will help reduce the impact of the virus. “In my personal view, public trust and confidence are important for this to work,” he said.

“We really need a sensible conversation for society, in same way that we think about climate change and having an obligation to act in ways that are for future individuals but not in our individual interest. I think the use of this data is similar. With appropriate protections, sharing our data in this way can contribute to saving future lives and suffering.”

The full discussion, which was part of the University's 'Covid Conversations' series, can be found here.