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Attitudes to digital contact tracing: citizens do not always prioritise privacy and prefer a centralised NHS system over a decentralised one.

Citizens’ concerns about data privacy may reduce adoption of COVID-19 contact tracing apps, making them less effective. Based on a choice experiment (conjoint experiment), Laszlo Horvath, Susan Banducci, and Oliver James find that citizens do not always prioritise privacy and prefer a centralised NHS system. They also find support for a mixture of contact tracing done digitally with limited human involvement. On the basis of these findings, they argue that the potential for the adoption of such apps in the UK appears high.

The government recently rolled out its contact tracing app in England and Wales. This launch came about after many stops and starts in developing and trialling an app – six months behind Singapore, the first country to adopt an app, and four months behind the first European apps in Italy and France. An element of a successful test and trace system, digital contact tracing relies on mobile applications and wearable technologies to record when users are in close proximity to one another for an extended period of time, and then notify a user if one of their contacts has tested positive for COVID-19. The app launched in England and Wales, which relies on existing Apple and Google technology to record contacts on the handheld device, also includes features where users can scan a QR code to record their location as well as an isolation counter to keep track of the days spent in isolation if needed.

For effective deployment of the new technology, public trust and confidence is key. Initial interpretations of an Oxford study suggested uptake and use would need to be around 60% for a contact tracing app to be successful, although recent estimates clarify that digital contact tracing is successful at much lower rates as well (at 15%) if combined with other interventions. Yet there is more to confidence-building than those initial adoption rates. In the words of an Isle of Wight GP: “My concern when the public […] will feel ‘what’s in it for me’ and be disincentivised. The truth is very little is in it for them other than the greater good,” the BBC quotes.

Our research was motivated by concerns about privacy as a limit to potential for citizen take-up of apps. In fact, using a conjoint experimental design, we found that citizens do not always prioritise privacy but give high preference to a centralised system led by the NHS over a decentralised system such as the one rolled out. This may be related to the strong support for the NHS during the crisis, one manifestation of this having been the nationwide clap for NHS carers, and the perception that the NHS should be part of the solution for the health crisis. Even when we highlighted a salient threat of unauthorised access or data theft, it did not significantly alter respondents’ preferences. We further find that citizens tend to support a mixture of contact tracing done digitally with limited human involvement. On the basis of these findings, the potential for adoption of apps appears high.

Earlier in the summer, and just weeks after our data collection finished, decisionmakers in the UK abandoned the NHS-led centralised system. According to news reports, this had more to do with technical failure than privacy concerns, though earlier the government insisted that the existence of the centralised NHS server improves the process of contact tracing by making audits and system adaptation possible while also minimising the number of low-risk notifications. While decentralised systems, such as the one being rolled out now, are praised for better overall privacy-preserving features, the lack of central oversight does limit human involvement – in practice, however, this is a legislative feature. After the failure of the first tracking app, it is unclear how meaningfully digital contact tracing will be integrated with the other elements of the test and trace process.

Our findings also highlight additional questions about how citizens’ relationship with their public health authorities affects cooperation with initiatives like digital contact tracing. In the UK, a long history of publicly funded, largely free at point of delivery, high-profile healthcare appears to have created the pre-conditions supportive to cooperate with national public health programmes. This opportunity has not so far been sufficiently exploited but could bode well for adoption of the new app system now that it is finally being rolled out for England and Wales.

The initial uptake of the ‘Protect Scotland’ mobile app launched by NHS Scotland earlier in September is consistent with this view, with over one million downloads within the first week. The challenge will be making sure the government keeps its side of the bargain in rapidly testing, quickly turning around results and then, for those who test positive, tracing contact – providing information quickly enough to those who were potentially exposed to the virus to isolate themselves before individuals transmit the infection to others. The app is only intended to improve the efficiency of the latter stage of an effective test and trace system. As the recent estimates indicate, there are significant issues with the first stages.

It is accepted even among those who are developing and promoting a contact tracing app that it is one tool in a comprehensive test and trace programme. Even if the app is enthusiastically downloaded and used by individual if the rest of the test and trace system, including effective and speedy testing and human contact tracing, is not delivering, the initial enthusiasm on the part of citizens to cooperate may wane.

originally posted at https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/uk-attitudes-to-digital-contact-tracing/

No, even this time is not that different COVID-19, the sudden and mysterious death of the SGP and European integration

By Jonathan C. Kamkhaji University of Exeter associate fellow and Polytechnic University of Milan

What if, within a couple of weeks, the term limit for US presidency was removed? What if, within the same couple of weeks, the UK abandoned its signature first-past-the-post and turned to proportional representation? What if, within the same limited amount of time, Italy surrendered perfect bicameralism or France rejected semi-presidentialism? Although these may seem outlandish questions, the magnitude and pace of the change triggered by COVID-19 on economic policy coordination within Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) resembled that of the above hyperboles.

In a nutshell, the European Union (EU), less than a month after the epidemic curve started its raise in Italy in February, simply suspended its much contested and polarizing mechanism for multilateral economic surveillance – the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP).

Literally in the blink of an eye, those rules that seemed to be, if not eternal, at least stable and structural elements of economic policy coordination within the EMU and key to guarantee its stability and trustworthiness vis-à-vis global markets and investors, disappeared. Technically, they were simply put in abeyance not to get in the way of Member States’ countercyclical fiscal expansions. Practically, the set of rules and parameters to which EMU Member States had voluntarily agreed to subscribe in order to deter fiscal profligacy and extreme financial follies since the early 90s have been discretely set aside for an indefinite amount of time – and no mayhem has, as of yet, unfolded in international financial and debt markets. This is even more remarkable if we realize that the suspension of the disciplinarian mechanism took place against a war-like global scenario poised to mark worst global GDP contraction of the last century.

Needless to say, this change is having and will have far-reaching implications for EU economies and economic and political integration, but I think that while these implications are still brewing within the EU (with the establishment of recovery funds and true fiscal solidarity as the main themes) it is more important, for now, to focus on how this sudden stop and reversal of rules for fiscal discipline has materialised. This is because the EU (and we…) live in times of polycrises, that is, crises that are multiple and overlapping, creating thereof polycleavages. Some go as far as arguing that the whole EU decisions and policy making is undergoing a process of crisisification, understood as the normalization of “crisis‐oriented methods for arriving at collective decisions”. What’s remarkable, however, is not simply the accumulation of crises and its influence on EU decision and policy making, but rather the fact that the EU is actually deepening its economic and political integration, not despite the crises, but through the crises.

Then, if crisis mood has become the new normal for the EU, and crises indeed have the potential to deepen integration, the question is how to explain this further quantum leap in terms of existing models and theory of integration. At the outset, we note that the EU, although entangled in and somewhat plagued by its fragmented governance, has a penchant, at least in the economic realm, for spot, landmark political decisions – like the decisions to renege on the no-bailout clause of Maastricht and rescue Greece in 2010, or to reinterpret monetary neutrality and do “whatever it takes” to save the common currency. Interestingly, those landmark decisions, like the one suspending the SGP, were purely political and came with little or no policy attached.

In all of these crises it is only ex post, after the grand political declarations have been fed to the public, that policy commences its engine, crucially surfing on the feedback of the initial declaration effect. A similar dynamic is captured by a number of new models of integration and crisis management. One of such models is failing forward. According to the model, intergovernmental decision making, which typically occurs in times of crisis, systematically leads to incomplete institutional design. The latter stimulates functional spill overs which in turn lead to further crisis. Crises are then faced again by piecemeal intergovernmental decisions which sow the seeds of future crises and failure. As a result, the EU invariably fails forward. Applying the insight of this model to the current crisis may be depressing but in fact we can already see the merits of the failing forward argument when we observe the massive political conflict which unfolded after the decision of suspending the SGP and rethinking the whole fiscal arm (and economic governance) of EMU. Call me a pessimist, but a piecemeal, incomplete integration of fiscal policies is still more likely than the comprehensive reform the EU needs in the fiscal domain. Yet again, a stern political turn in the right direction mitigated by incremental and insufficient policy instrumentation and institutions.

Another model which draws on contested governance and comes to interesting conclusions about crisis management and integration is presented by Jabko in its sociopsychological account of the Eurozone crisis of 2010-2013. This contribution points to the highly guarded boundaries of policy paradigms to show how decisions taken under conditions of extreme uncertainty (typical of crises) defy paradigmatic expectations and conform instead to malleable repertoires. As crisis decision making is constrained by material and cognitive limitations, the resort to rigid blueprints for action like paradigms takes place post hoc, in the policy phase, but is hardly observable in the context of the single decision which triggers the whole process of change. Yet again, this argument may lead to bitter conclusions. If suspending the SGP may have been a correct decision pushed by the acuteness of the crisis, and defying more than 20 years of ordoliberal paradigm, the construction of institutions and policy around this decision may bring us back, again, to an incomplete design of fiscal integration.

The last model which may explain the sudden and mysterious death of the SGP is contingent learning. According to this model, in episodes crisis management characterized by stress, uncertainty, time pressure and demands for rapid action, real-time policy change takes place through associative processes of contingent learning and the nature and scope of this behavioural change is greater than re-design and incremental adaptations. In change-or-die situations we find accidental heroes. They produce significant change and only later they reflect on ‘what have we done’ and start drawing inferences from experience, thus entering the world of classical policy learning – and policy making. If we stick to this model, we have then to hope for an ex post learning process which does not go back to the tenets of the old paradigms once the storm has been cushioned.

In any case, even this time does not seem to be different: existential threats provide the potential to lead in the right direction, but a little recovery may be enough to stick to the old, failing principles and decisional traps.



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