DDI Discussions: Covid-19 & Data – One year on

Twelve months after the first national lockdown, an expert panel gave us their insights on a year like no other

Watch the panel discussion here.


The use of data during the Covid-19 pandemic has raised big questions about how much personal information people are willing to share – and what they get in return.

Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh’s Medical School, told a DDI webinar Covid-19 and Data: One Year On: “In South Korea, [which used a mass track-and-trace system using credit card and smartphone data] people traded privacy and personal information for a right to movement.

“One of the things the pandemic revealed is how much can you get into people’s data, into their information, for the public good. How much are we willing to do that? The use of apps is voluntary; if we want it to be mandatory, it’s another step.

“How much do we actually want our freedom, our privacy [if] we all need to be locked in our homes because there’s no good way actually to pull out who’s infectious and who’s not?”

Jason Leitch, National Clinical Director for Scotland, said the same debates had taken place around the Protect Scotland app, but emphasised that it has to be a policy and a political decision based on what the public wants.

Professor Leitch said the big debate was now about vaccine passports, after the airline Qantas announced no-one could fly without vaccine evidence.

“What do we do with people who can’t or won’t get vaccinated? That has data implications and massive societal and human rights implications. Can I go to nightclubs or the cinema without data about my medical history? That feels like an odd place to go.”

Professor Leitch said data-sharing during the pandemic between different bodies had been good, but accepted the availability of data could have been better.

Professor Nick Mills, Senior Responsible Officer for DataLoch, a repository of data from various sources, said DataLoch had mapped data from dozens of sources, streamlined processes and within eight weeks of the arrival of the pandemic, provided “comprehensive real time data to support multiple projects”.

He said it would have been helpful to have better care home data to inform the initial response and there was still progress to be made in the quality of care home data available.

Access to data had played a “remarkable role in guiding us in the last year”, he added, while accepting national and regional data still suffered from being in silos, and held by different data controllers. “The data governance model has been a challenge – but that’s easier to overcome in a public health emergency,” he said. “We need to learn to streamline the process going forward.”

Professor Sridhar said we had learned an awful lot in a year and Scotland was in “a really good place”.

‘We have to look back to see what we would do differently,” she said. “But there is never an optimal way; there are always trade-offs and they have to be explained to the public. If we do not manage Covid harm, the harm to education or the economy is inevitable. It’s about managing the situation rather than balancing it.”

Professor Leith said he thought one of the real lessons of the last year had been the importance of data literacy – from school pupils able to question him on the efficacy of lateral flow testing to politicians able to absorb and act upon complex datasets.

He said the use of data had been “exceptional” and that the public had shown that it was prepared to share personal data for the public good. “Two million people downloaded the Protect Scotland app and we never expected numbers like that,” he said.

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