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Pub and restaurant check-in data hardly used by England's health officials

Mattha Busby
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Public health officials and contractors in England have barely used check-in data from millions of people who have visited cafes, pubs and restaurants, the Guardian has learned.

As a legal condition introduced last month, venues are obliged to record customer details in an effort to contain the spread of Covid-19, but the government’s hamstrung test-and-trace scheme has appeared unable to cope with the swiftly rising number of coronavirus cases.

There are fears the apparent failure to use the data means local outbreaks have worsened when they could have been suppressed, but the hospitality sector has highlighted Public Health England data for the past week showing that venues had been linked to only 2.7% of new outbreaks.

If government public health officials believe a venue is linked to an outbreak they can request customer logs and send a “warn and inform” message to app users who attended the venue at a similar time based on when they checked in. It is separate from the general contact-tracing element of the app, which relates to individual cases of close contact.

The trade body Hospitality UK said a surveyof 568 businesses, covering 12,500 venues and 250m customer visits, suggested 104 cases had been pursued since the summer reopening.

Airship, a data-processing business whose 340 clients include Wetherspoons, Costa and Pret a Manger, said it had registered more than 18m visits to 10,000 venues but only received about 50 requests for data after venues were contacted by health officials.

“It seems there was never a system in place to use any of this data to try to stop the spread of the virus. It is a missed opportunity,” Airship’s chief executive, Dan Brookman, told the Times. “It seems to have been a box-ticking exercise, another piece of noise to give the impression that action was being taken, but actually no action followed.”

Wetherspoons, which has 850 pubs, reportedly had 35 of the requests. A spokesperson said: “Data is stored securely for a 21-day period in accordance with GDPR requirements and is then deleted. It is only disclosed to NHS test and trace or other statutory authorities on request.”

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Wireless Social, whose clients include Fullers and Yo!, said it had recorded more than 3m customers’ details but had received no requests for data. It described the test-and-trace system as window dressing.

The firm’s chief executive, Julian Ross, said: “I don’t believe they had an infrastructure in the background that was ready to process this data.”

The software developer HGEM, which developed a secure solution for test and trace that was used by BrewDog, among other customers, also said it had received no requests.

“It has become evident that a vanishingly small proportion of the data collected has been requested for contact tracing, possibly because of its imprecise nature,” said the firm’s managing director Steven Pike.

Some venues demand that customers check in upon arrival via QR-code, but others have taken brief details on scraps of paper and some have not taken any information at all.

The CEO of Hospitality UK, Kate Nicholls, told the Times: “The limited amount of contact from health officials is proof that we are not the problem.”

The Department for Health and Social Care said: “Maintaining records of staff, customers and visitors is vital to help NHS test and trace identify and contain clusters or outbreaks of Covid-19 linked to particular venues.”

“Since 11 September, businesses who are already using their own QR system have been asked to switch to the NHS test and trace QR codes compatible with the Covid-19 app. An alternative check-in method must be maintained to collect the contact details of those who don’t have the app or do not have a smartphone.”

It is understood that NHS test and trace will undertake an assessment and work with venues to understand what action needs to be taken. Venue alerts would be only sent to users if local health experts determine this to be necessary, such as if there is an outbreak linked to a venue.