Technology re-wired to combat COVID-19

Since the previous IUA technology blogs addressing e-scooters and 5G, the world has been through some rather significant changes, both socially and economically, as the world has been catapulted into a global pandemic that few were prepared for.

Within this blog, we look to focus on technology and its interactions with the COVID-19 pandemic.  More specifically, how technology is being used to: (i) combat the spread of COVID-19 and (ii) help economies return to some sense of normality, whilst we also contemplate some of the insurance considerations that surround these technologies.

Tracking and geo-location has appeared at the forefront of this push to help global economies return to normal and since it has been utilised in other industries, such as transport, for some time, it is a natural development for such technology to be employed in a ‘new normal’ of social distancing measures.

In an effort to return to pre-pandemic productivity levels, some jobs that require the physical presence of workers have begun trialling smart bracelet trackers. An example of this is Rombit, an innovative smart bracelet first seen in the Port of Antwerp, with a number of similarities to technology also utilised in Ford manufacturing locations (Bloomberg, 2020). The bracelet, aimed at social distancing in the first instance, warns individuals when they are getting too close to one another. The activation gives due notice to maintain a safe distance and has built in privacy protection to ensure no sensitive information or locational information is passed on to the employer. However, it does allow the tracing and contacting of an individual should they contract the virus and a need arises to track those they may have come into contact with (Port of Antwerp, 2020).

Similar systems are being developed worldwide in the form of track and trace apps to give citizens access to technology that can give governments and citizens the confidence to return to some sense of normal life. The UK announced the trial of the NHS track and trace, which has run into some problems relating to compatibility with certain mobile phone providers. There has been a successful rollout of a version in South Korea and in Singapore with 600,000 people signing up to the app in the latter within the first week (Gizmodo, 2020). COVIDSafe has also been released in Australia and is now available to download. 

There are significant insurance considerations for stakeholders that are looking to implement track and trace applications during their early rollout. The obvious ones are likely to centre around faulty or ineffective technology being released, which may falsely represent the size or speed of a breakout and in turn lead to slower or inefficient Government action.  This eventuality would likely have both products and employers’ liability considerations when used in the work place, not to mention wider economic and social consequences with effects on the confidence of citizens to return to normal.

From an employment perspective, employers have a duty to ensure ‘the health, safety and welfare of (1) employees whilst they are at work and (2) the wider public affected by its undertaking’ (UK Government, 1974). As such, organisations must be wary of bringing employees back to the office when they could be exposed to an avoidable risk of infection or harm, which could leave firms open to further legal and regulatory scrutiny. As a consequence, it has become apparent that companies must operate cautiously with their “return to office” planning in the UK with industry regulators, such as the Prudential Regulatory Authority, in contact with regulated firms to interrogate their plans. There are a range of resources available on the web that provide more in-depth insights on employers duty of care to their employees, but common law suggests that employers have a duty to take responsible care for the health of employees (Old Square Chambers, 2020). It seems apparent that continuing to work from home may be the preference for those industries that can accommodate this option to enable them to operate as close to business as usual.  

Despite the best efforts of developers, there are significant limitations to the effectiveness of these proximity apps, including that the app makes an assumption that there will be mass adoption of the technology; that people individually have access to a mobile / smart phone, keep it with them at all times and also have the Bluetooth function activated. Considering this, it seems highly risky to rely on such technology as the sole protection provided to citizens or employees should this technology be deployed.

Other important considerations in the use of these apps is the importance of protecting the privacy of users, as mentioned in the case of Rombit. 2020 has seen a privacy discourse develop within technology circles and has been under discussion at a number of IUA committees, including the IUA’s Developing Technology Monitoring Group. In the context of the potential for an app such as this to be used in the London Insurance Market, there are some obvious initial questions that should be considered. These apply equally in the case of antibody tests and temperature checks being utilised in the office environment, the latter being something Lloyd’s have announced will be central to the reopening of their underwriting room. Consideration must be given to the ability to access information regarding geo-location and interactions with other devices.

Employers must ask questions such as: who will collect and collate this sensitive personal data; have access to the data; how it will be stored and how long for; and how will it inform decisions? This is particularly pertinent in light of recent guidance issued by the Belgian Data Protection Authority suggesting that recording data from temperature checks could conflict with the requirements detailed within the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Ensuring the privacy of users is protected will be of great importance to the success of any track and trace application and will be at the forefront of insurers’ minds where asked to insure such technology.

Whilst many are keen to return to the office, the transition to working from home has been made significantly easier by the widespread availability of videoconferencing applications such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. To put the increased use of these applications into perspective, first time installations of Zoom since 2nd March 2020 have gone up by a staggering 728%, leading to a doubling in the most recent financial valuation of the company at $40.3bn (Drift, 2020) when compared to pre-pandemic. Such apps have wound their way into all aspects of the ‘new normal’ and have secured themselves as fundamental fixtures in everyday life, enabling families and friends to stay in touch during these difficult times. In the context of business, they have facilitated continued collaboration between colleagues and clients ensuring that many industries are able to run as close to business as usual as possible.

With regards to the insurance market, the IUA has continually received feedback from its members that video conferencing technology is enabling them to operate close to business as usual with internal communications operating efficiently. Imperatively, client and broker meetings are also still occurring on a regular basis without the travel costs associated for many. In a market that is often accused of being behind the curve in the adoption of technology, successful take up can only be an advantage to the market both economically and environmentally. It has also coincided with electronic placement becoming more prevalent in the market and without it the challenges the market faced would have been felt more severely. What becomes apparent is that all industries need to be flexible to fast-moving situations and technology frequently holds the key.

Further examples of where this technology can make a real difference to people’s lives can be seen in a multitude of sectors, but none more so than in the medical sector. Video diagnosis and treatment is now, more than ever, being utilised in a number of different parts of the profession. This is empowering doctors to continue to provide their service, reaching vulnerable patients who are unable to attend appointments in person and in many cases using other technologies in tandem to help diagnose patients’ symptoms safely and effectively. From an insurance perspective, this has been extremely helpful in markets such as Contingency, where policyholders and insurers alike rely on the expertise of Doctors to provide diagnoses quickly; protecting the health of clients and ensuring the rapid payment of claims.

Similarly, the use of video conferencing technology has been seen in the field of psychiatry, which has a long history of using ‘telepsychiatry’ to reach patients who are unable to attend appointments in person. The IUA were fortunate enough to welcome the Priory Group and specifically Dr. Paul McLaren during Mental Health Awareness Week to speak to the Personal Accident and Health Underwriting Group about a variety of developments in the field to the benefit of policyholders. The presentation included information on telepsychiatry with its history traced back to Utah in the 1950’s and in-depth research, beginning in the UK in the 1970’s and 1980’s, undertaken in order to develop an understanding of treatments that could be effective in a more digitally connected environment.

It was noted that the use of this technology had limitations and was not appropriate for use on all patients but instead could be considered on a case-by-case basis. When employed correctly, it was asserted that telepsychiatry could be used effectively combined with other treatments to engage with patients that doctors are unable to reach in person to ensure they still receive the treatment they need and deserve.

Despite the well-documented positivity around Zoom, the protection of users is of the utmost importance and concern has been expressed over a number of different security and privacy problems that were widely reported in national media. Privacy is a consideration for all users of technology and, in particular, in situations where confidential sensitive personal data is being shared. This is just another consideration that doctors must take into account when adopting new technology.  

For practitioners in fields such as these, the responsibilities don’t change and, from a liability perspective, the use of video and telephone diagnosis and treatment does not diminish the responsibility of the professional. Instead, it is seen as a tool to be utilised by professionals to support them in carrying out their job effectively. This creates better outcomes for patients and from an insurance perspective, better outcomes for their policyholders. Similar principles could be applied to industries using this technology or applications, including artificially intelligent systems, to provide professional advice, such as solicitors and financial planners. Insurers must continue to understand the impact of relying on new technologies and the potential systemic risks that this may pose, particularly in light of their obligations to understand and control cyber risks. Therefore, whilst the insurance implications surrounding the use of these technologies are not fully understood, they are likely to manifest around systemic risk posed by inter-connectivity and overreliance, as well as the privacy of data subjects engrained in the use of these developing technologies.

As always, technology presents fantastic opportunities for businesses, whether policyholders or not, to explore new solutions to problems old and new. These in turn present emerging risks that insurers must educate themselves on to ensure that the products offered effectively meet the risk environment that buyers are faced with. COVID-19 is no different. The IUA’s Developing Technology Monitoring Group will continue to monitor developments and provide the market with an avenue to share knowledge and experience on these emerging risks; create thought leadership and more widely serve the market to ensure that insurers are prepared for the changing landscape that technology continually creates.