UK supermarkets contacting vulnerable patients ‘must delete data when crisis abates’
Britain’s supermarkets have been warned against holding on to NHS data about vulnerable patients which they will receive as part of the government’s efforts to combat Covid-19 once the crisis has abated.
The retailers will this week begin contacting customers whose names are on a list of medically vulnerable individuals, handed over by the government.
But they must delete the data they have received when the coronavirus crisis has abated, the information commissioner warned. Until then, the information, which covers at least 1.5 million people, may be kept and used by the supermarkets to help prioritise deliveries to those most in need.
Handing over the data is allowed under measures in the Data Protection Act that enable public authorities to share relevant information to provide essential support services.
An ICO spokesperson said: “Data protection law enables organisations to share personal data when it is appropriate to do so. In a national emergency such as the Covid-19 pandemic, sharing information between organisations can make a real difference to protecting vulnerable individuals.
“Where it’s necessary, public authorities are able to share relevant information to help provide essential support services, as long as they share only the minimum amount of information required and ensure that it is not retained for longer than needed. Data sharing can be done in accordance with the law, including putting the appropriate safeguards in place so people’s information is handled responsibly.”
Initially, 110,000 people were included on a list that was shared with the supermarkets last Thursday, according to a letter to customers from Tesco’s chief executive, Dave Lewis. The supermarket managed to match that information to 75,000 people on its own records.
But that remains a fraction of the full list of 1.5 million people classified by the NHS as “extremely clinically vulnerable”, a categorisation that includes transplant recipients, people with cystic fibrosis or severe asthma, and cancer patients currently undergoing chemotherapy.
Supermarkets may top up that list with their own data, the government said, if they wish to also prioritise elderly customers, or those with less serious health conditions. “We have given supermarkets the information they need – in addition to their own data – to help ensure essential items are delivered as soon as possible to the people with medical conditions that make them most vulnerable,” a government spokesperson said.
Sainsbury’s, for instance, has managed to identify more than 450,000 elderly or vulnerable customers, CEO Mike Coupe said in a letter to shoppers, identifying those customers through a mixture of pre-existing data, calls to its customer helpline, and the government’s shared data.
Although the data has been temporarily transferred, ownership is retained by the NHS at all times, the Guardian understands, and the supermarkets are being held to strict data security standards due to the sensitivity of the information involved.
But neither the government nor the retailers would answer questions about whether the transfer included details on medical conditions, or simply the fact that named individuals were classed as critically vulnerable. The former could help prioritise additional care, but would impose a further burden in adhering to data protection principles.
It is hoped that the transfer of data will help solve problems for some customers. One Sainsbury’s shopper who wrote to the Guardian, for instance, qualified as a critically vulnerable patient due to their immune therapy, but struggled to get hold of the supermarket to actually book a delivery in the week before the data was handed over.
Another, a 78-year-old woman with multiple disabilities, should have been included under the supermarket’s voluntary prioritisation of elderly customers, but also failed to book a delivery.
After the Guardian raised the issue, the retailer apologised to the customers, and secured delivery slots.