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Information watchdog sets out its regulatory approach during COVID-19

The Information Commissioner's Office has issued a statement setting out its regulatory approach during the coronavirus pandemic, saying it will focus on those areas likely to cause the greatest public harm.

The statement, which can be viewed here, says: “With the correct application of flexibility in regulatory response, we do not consider that any of the legislation we oversee should prevent organisations taking the steps they need to in order to keep the public safe and supported during the present public health emergency.

“There is plenty of flexibility built in to the legislation for organisations to use in such times, including some specific public health related exemptions.”

The watchdog said the flexibility of the law allowed it to be a pragmatic and empathetic regulator, adding that it would demonstrate this through its actions:

  • “We will continue to recognise the rights and protections granted to people by the law, both around their personal information and their right to freedom of information.
  • We will focus our efforts on the most serious challenges and greatest threats to the public.
  • We will assist frontline organisations in providing advice and guidance on data protection laws.
  • We will take firm action against those looking to exploit the public health emergency through nuisance calls or by misusing personal information.
  • We will be flexible in our approach, taking into account the impact of the potential economic or resource burden our actions could place on organisations.
  • We will be ready to provide maximum support for business and public authorities as they recover from the public health emergency.”

The statement covers: the background; engagement with the public and organisations; regulatory action; and the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations.

Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner, said: “Regulators apply their authority within the larger social and economic situation. We see the organisations facing staff and capacity shortages. We see the public bodies facing severe front-line pressures. And we see the many businesses facing acute financial pressures.

“Against this backdrop, it is right that we must adjust our regulatory approach. Our UK data protection law is not an obstacle to such flexibility. It explicitly sets out the importance of my office taking regard of the general public interest, and allows for people’s health and safety to be prioritised without the need for legislative amendment.

“A principle underpinning data protection law is that the processing of personal data should be designed to serve mankind. Right now, that means the regulator reflecting these exceptional times, and showing the flexibility that the law allows.”

Denham added: “We must reflect these exceptional times. We will continue to recognise the continuing importance of privacy protections, and the value of transparency provided by freedom of information. These rights are a part of modern life we must not lose. But my office will continue to safeguard information rights in an empathetic and pragmatic way that reflects the impact of coronavirus.

“It is important that we regulate for the time we are in now, but it is important too that we look to the future. Data protection can play a central role in promoting economic growth when we come out of this pandemic: encouraging public trust in innovation and supporting the UK as it steps forward in the global economy.”

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