Government Gave Supermarkets Vulnerable People's Data. Councils Need It – And Can't Get It

The leader of one council said No.10 was risking "tragedy" by failing to share information on people's needs with local authorities on the ground.

Coronavirus has changed everything. Make sense of it all with the Waugh Zone, our evening politics briefing. Sign up now.

Data on 1.5m vulnerable people handed to supermarkets amid the coronavirus crisis has not been shared with councils on the front line, HuffPost UK understands.

When panic buying swept the country, the government waived data restrictions and passed on details of those most at risk from the disease to grocery giants such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

The aim was to ensure the “extremely clinically vulnerable”, who are on strict lockdown, did not run short of essentials and were first in line for home deliveries.

Local authorities, whose social care workers and volunteers want to target food parcels and support at the most vulnerable, were promised they too could have the vital data.

But emails between council chiefs, seen by HuffPost UK, suggest this has yet to happen, some two weeks after it was promised.

Shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne said: “Our councils are on the front line delivering support to our vulnerable friends and family – but to do this essential work, all of our councils need access to the data that was promised by the government.

“Whilst some councils are still unable to access this vital information, the government has given access to supermarkets and others.”

Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes, Labour leader on the Local Government Association, said the block was a barrier on the ground.

“Despite repeated promises from government that councils would get comprehensive information about people being shielded, most councils are still only getting partial or incomplete data,” he said.

“We don’t know who has requested support, whether they need food or medicines urgently, or whether they have any dietary or religious requirements.

“At the same time, every council has set up a local hub to coordinate requests for help from local residents with the army of volunteers coming forward.

“I understand the government’s desire to ensure everyone identified as at risk is looked after, but they’re missing a trick by trying to control everything nationally. All this does is increase the risk that some people are missed, which would be a tragedy.”

MPs have also sounded the alarm over data protection, demanding to know how long supermarkets have access to the database.

When pressed for answers on the safeguards on data, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said it was sharing the “minimum” amount and would ensure it was not kept by supermarkets “longer than needed”.

Despite repeated requests, the government was also unable to confirm whether or not supermarkets have paid for data access.

Gwynne added: “It’s vital this very sensitive data is used solely for the task of helping the vulnerable throughout the crisis, and for no other reasons. It’s also crucial that all councils have access to this information forthwith.”

Health secretary Matt Hancock has said data protection laws that govern the UK – the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – have an opt-out for national emergencies.

Newcastle MP and shadow business minister Chi Onwurah said it was “absolutely essential” vulnerable and isolated people got food and support, but she feared data was more exposed.

She said: “Creating a large database of all vulnerable adults and then sharing it with commercial organisations raises many, many concerns. Why weren’t local authorities asked to organise and coordinate deliveries?

“How can it be GDPR-compliant, as the government says, when those concerned haven’t been asked to give their permission? What will happen to the data after coronavirus?

“The government needs to show that it has these policies in place to safeguard those who are already vulnerable from both cyber security and privacy threats.”

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said it was “in the process” of sharing information with local authority hubs.

A government spokesperson said the information was being shared in strict adherence to data laws, adding: “We are working with food retailers to make sure home deliveries and click and collect can be prioritised for the most clinically vulnerable who are isolated.

“In the current national emergency, sharing information will make a real difference to protecting vulnerable individuals, and all information will be shared in strict accordance with data protection laws.”


What's Hot