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Handling patient data during COVID-19

Safeguarding personal data remains as important during COVID-19 as ever before, says Gemma Brannigan, partner at law firm Clyde & Co  

In times of crisis, it is well-recognised that healthcare organisations will need to gather and share specific personal information, over and above what would be usual. 

This is recognised by the data protection watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO): even if technical breaches do occur during this time, the ICO, as a ‘reasonable and pragmatic regulator’, has pledged to take into account the ‘compelling public interest’ created by the current pandemic.

Although the  ICO is not in a position to extend or waive statutory deadlines, for example, for information requests, it encourages people to show understanding if they have to wait longer for requests to be fulfilled. The ICO has also stated that it will not take regulatory action against organisations which are unable to comply with statutory timescales because of COVID-19 capacity issues.

Key points

  • If you need to adapt your usual approach to data protection and information governance to prioritise resources due to the pandemic, you will not be penalised
  • If you are making changes to the way you deal with personal information, or are concerned you may be in breach due to a situation arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic, make a record about this. Changes may be required during the pandemic, but they must be justifiable within this context
  • The ICO is unable to change its statutory requirements, so in the event of non-compliance, you must still be able to show that you have taken all possible reasonable steps
  • Your actions must be proportionate i.e. not excessive from the public’s perspective.

Further reading
Clyde & Co article. Useful medical law during COVID-19

ICO guidance. Data protection and coronavirus

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