Public Health Scotland has been at the heart of the national COVID-19 response. During the pandemic, PHS was able to publish daily figures of deaths, positive cases in residents by neighbourhood, cases in new arrivals, variants of COVID-19, locations where the virus was being transmitted the most, numbers of people receiving the different types of vaccines, etc.
To do this, PHS had to process personal and special categories of data. Emergency legislation was put in place under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 which provided a legal gateway for PHS to share information with other public bodies.
A COVID-19 privacy statement for NHS Scotland was published and many national programmes were put in place which PHS was actively involved in.
All required collaborative working among a wide range of organisations in e.g., NHS, local authority social care, border control, care homes, Police Scotland, Scottish Prison Service, etc. We also shared data outputs with health and social care partnerships who had responsibility for providing additional support for shielded individuals in their local communities.
In collaborating with our partners to deliver an effective and urgent COVID-19 response, we recognise that the duty to share information can be as important as the duty to protect confidentiality.
We supported the Scottish Government’s Test and Protect programme which was Scotland’s approach to implementing the test, trace, isolate, support strategy. We did this by using testing data to produce statistics and inform the COVID-19 response and research in areas such as enhanced surveillance, wider impact on health and care as a result of the lockdown, and testing and treatment activities.
Newly arrived passengers were required under law to disclose accurate contact information on arrival which was collected by the Home Office. They, in turn, shared extracts from their passenger locator database for PHS to follow up for guidance and support through the National Contact Tracing Centre.
In our general COVID-19 response and now the recovery effort, we support researchers who have sought permission from the Public Benefit & Privacy Panel for health and social care (PBPP) to proceed with their studies following a proportionate governance scrutiny process which involves patient representatives (e.g. EAVE II study which includes understanding important risk factors for COVID-19 and how well prescribed treatments, such as existing therapies, vaccines and antimicrobials work).
We also use the data to support our various enhanced surveillance programmes and statistical releases within Public Health Scotland (e.g. seroprevalence, mortality, intensive care unit activity, impact of COVID-19 on ethnic groups, hospital onset COVID-19 cases, excess deaths, outcomes for renal patients). Public Health Scotland upholds the highest standards of confidentiality, and all published outputs are subject to statistical disclosure assessment.
We have now gained a much better understanding of COVID-19 and its effects on individuals, e.g. pregnant women and certain ethnic groups, because of our ability to process personal data and safely disseminate our findings.
Although all COVID rules and restrictions have been lifted, the virus has not gone away. We continue to engage in health surveillance work and publish a range of outputs which are making a positive contribution to the COVID-19 knowledge base for better decision making and enhanced care and treatment.
They include numerous guidance for health protection teams, statistics on hospital onset weekly COVID-19 cases, weekly epidemiological information on COVID-19 activity, research and surveillance study papers published in international journals, and updates to the COVID-19 in Scotland dashboard.