Ecologies of Public Trust: The NHS COVID-19 Contact Tracing App

Ecologies of Public Trust: The NHS COVID-19 Contact Tracing App

Original Research

Open Access. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry. Published online 5 October 2021.

Gabrielle Samuel, Frederica Lucivero, Stephanie Johnson & Heilien Diedericks

Abstract: In April 2020, close to the start of the first U.K. COVID-19 lockdown, the U.K. government announced the development of a COVID-19 contact tracing app, which was later trialled on the U.K. island, the Isle of Wight, in May/June 2020. United Kingdom surveys found general support for the development of such an app, which seemed strongly influenced by public trust. Institutions developing the app were called upon to fulfil the commitment to public trust by acting with trustworthiness. Such calls presuppose that public trust associated with the app can emerge if the conditions for trustworthiness are met and that public trust is simplistic, i.e., linearly the sum of each member of the publics’ individual – U.K. government trust relationship. Drawing on a synthesis of the trust literature and fifteen interviews with members of the public trialling the app on the Isle of Wight, this paper aims to explore what trust mechanisms and relationships are at play when thinking about public trust in the context of the U.K. COVID-19 app. We argue that public trust is a complex social phenomenon and not linearly correlated with institutional trustworthiness. As such, attention needs to widen from calls for trustworthy infrastructures as a way to build public trust, to a deeper understanding of those doing the trusting; in particular, what or whom do people place their trust in (or not) when considering whether using the app and why. An understanding of this will help when trying to secure public trust during the implementation of necessary public health measures.

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