Are you a Covid-19 Duck ?

 

There is a test for Covid-19 according to the BBC Radio 4 programme More or Less and it is based on the old saying …

 

If it walks like a duck, sounds like a duck and looks like a duck … it’s probably a duck.

 

What the radio programme delved into was the accuracy of the tests going on now for Covid-19. There are, it seems, some dodgy results.

We are getting false results since the amount of virus particles captured by swabbing may be too low to register in the test. First of all, this can be because swabbing both the back of the throat and nose can be a bit ‘iffy’, and secondly because the amount of virus in those of us who are infected varies over time,  so the amount of virus particles captured by swabbing may be too low to register in the test.

The More or Less programme gave a typical figure for ‘someone has Covid-19 but tested as not having Covid-19’ (called false negatives in the jargon) of about 30%.

So as we move forward about 1 in 3 people tested will be told to be cautious and then start back into community life but may still have the infection. 

Government advice has been that if you look like a Covid-19 Duck with your symptoms then it is best that you assume you are a Covid-19 Duck and self-isolate immediately and check your symptoms.

We have to ask, why tracing is based on test results that can come days after symptoms first appear and fall short of 100% accuracy, when, as the NCF propose, tracing can be automated much more and should start as though you had the virus the moment you start  showing symptoms ?

The NCF has proposed to the Select Committee on Health and others that Covid-19 tracing apps are based on giving individuals their own Covid-19 contact information starting with contacts that have suspect, but not yet confirmed symptoms. That information should be on their smartphones to start with, and then perhaps on more devices over time as Singapore is doing.

If you let people know anonymously and automatically that they have been in contact with someone with suspect symptoms that allows the public to take early precautions in their own lives. NCF estimate that this should be 6-7 days earlier than the current test then trace working by the NHS. Time is critical in tracing activity and this could make a significant difference to the overall effectiveness of the whole system.

It is worth commenting on the range of symptoms that those with Covid-19 can display. They are many and various and it is quite possible that a person might display them due to something completely different. So the NCF approach may well result in people being notified with quite a number of false alarms from those who aren’t actually Covid-19 Ducks

(called in the jargon false positives).   

So the NCF approach may be cautious but faster and thus safer, and people will learn from their own experiences and detailed contact information if and when suspects turn into confirmed Covid-19 contacts in a few days

We want to see the NCF guidance supported and strengthened with automated notification of suspect symptoms contacts that would enable people to look further back than 48 hours. People would then be better protected to keep overall levels of infection down and, as we have proposed, work better with local authorities.

Let’s get tracing all those Covid-19 Ducks!

 

Peter Eisenegger

Brexit : Keep our safety legislation!

Support for Regulation

Research finds that there is a high level of support for regulations among younger people that voted to leave the European Union. The majority of respondents expressed a preference for maintaining or increasing regulations across diverse areas of public life. The research indicated strong support for keeping or strengthening EU-derived regulations – both among younger Leave voters who voted Conservative in December 2019, and those who voted Labour.

This public opinion research was carried out by Uchecked.uk to test attitudes to regulation, deregulation and enforcement of regulations among young adults in Great Britain who voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. We might have expected these voters to have embraced a “bonfire of the regulations” to release businesses from their bureaucratic burdens, as was championed during the Brexit referendum debates. But this is clearly not the reason for them to vote “out”

Wrong Legislation Repealed

Arnold Pindar, NCF Chairman says: “Throughout my career, when dealing with consumer safety, successive governments have tried to find ways of reducing bureaucratic burdens on businesses. However, they appear to always target the wrong legislation to repeal. This and previous research by Unchecked.uk has shown that consumers/voters recognise the need for effective safety legislation. Also, in my long experience, businesses need a ‘level playing field’ of safety legislation that protects them from selling unsafe products but ensures that they can compete fairly in the marketplace.”

During the Brexit debates, David Davies, then Brexit Minister, stated that Brexit must not result in a race to the bottom. To compete in the world markets, the United Kingdom needs to compete on quality, and this also means on safety.

Compete on Quality: No reduction on Safety

From this research and our observations at the NCF, we call on the government:

  • to maintain and where necessary increase regulations to ensure the UK competes on quality and
  • to ensure that there is no reduction in standards of safety as trade deals are negotiated with the European Union, USA and other countries.
The full report is available at Unchecked UK.

Something for our Brussels negotiators to bear in mind if they can tear themselves away from cod (with an extra portion of chips please).

Covid-19 : Trust Us More

The new apps being deployed to trace and track Covid-19 are a chance for more user participation to make the whole tracing scheme more effective. All it takes says Peter Eisenegger who leads for NCF on Consumer Digital Concerns would be a little more functionality and choice for their smart phones.

This would allow us as consumers and citizens to take even more sensible decisions about our behaviours, the precautions we take and co-operation with whatever rules are in force at the time as well as improving the level of uptake of Covid-19 tracing apps.

The key is TO TRUST THE PUBLIC.

More Information

The current strategy, adopted by the Government, has a centralised resource deciding that your Covid-19 contacts are creating risk and that your health conditions make you vulnerable. You are then notified to take care accordingly. This keeps us short of information. The NCF believes that with more processing of our Covid-19 contact data privately on our own phone, giving much more insightful information, we can be empowered to take better care of our own safety, and that of our fellow citizens, so avoiding Covid-19 health problems.

More Suppliers

We would also like to see more than one supplier because in our experience consumers react to a range of choices positively by being readier to buy. One often quoted set of figures took choice from no better than 10% for single choice to 66% combined uptake for a two-choice option between different, but similar, products. We should avoid putting all our eggs in one basket. The special apps could offer benefit both in the home and our workplaces such as schools, care homes, factories, offices and so on.

The more people can adapt the app for their own circumstances the more useful it becomes. This positive experience will then help reduce consumer fear of apps designed for the public good which may seem to seek to pry into and control our lives.

Standards at Home and Abroad

We also have to think internationally for when we can travel abroad again  where we may still need to trace  Covid-19 contacts in the places we visit and  manage the infection risks of such travel. So an additional aid to reassuring us as citizens has to be national and international standards for basic contact information anonymization and sharing between Covid-19 tracing apps to enable communication between different apps/phones/networks.

You can see the full paper here

CONSUMERS TO MASTERCARD “GIVE US £14 BILLION BACK”

Consumer Rights Argued at Highest Level

On 13-14 May 2020 at the Supreme Court, former Chief Financial Ombudsman, Walter Merricks CBE, took a class action on behalf of consumers against Mastercard to the highest court in the land. The action was taken with support from a small group of consumer experts, amongst them Arnold Pindar NCF Chair.

The claim is that unlawful card fees were passed on to shoppers through higher prices from 1992 to 2008. The case was thrown out by the Class Action Tribunal in 2017 but was successful at the Court of Appeal. Due to this being an important test case for the working of the relatively new Consumer Rights Act, the Supreme Court will determine whether the claim can proceed.

£300 Each?

Walter Merricks claims £14bn on behalf of United Kingdom consumers. If successful, an estimated 46.2 million consumers could each receive a handout of about £300.

The new Act makes it easier for consumers to seek compensation by giving them six years to bring a case and by enabling anyone forming part of the suing ‘class’ to be a part of the case.

The class action follows on from a case in the European Court in which Mastercard was found guilty of restricting card payment competition which harmed consumers and retailers. Mastercard was fined €570m by the court.

‘Errors in Law’

On behalf of the claimants, Paul Harris QC expertly claimed that the Tribunal had made errors in law in dismissing the original claim. One difficulty for the claim is that we cannot say exactly how much each individual claimant (of the 46.2 million!) is owed. It is not just those with a Mastercard account that we claim are owed compensation but everyone that bought from a store or service that accepted Mastercard payments. As Mastercard have argued, the overcharge was passed on, or spread across, by e.g. supermarkets, to all their customers, not just those using their credit cards.

In a class action arguing overcharging for purchasing e.g. mobility vehicles (part of a previous case), it is possible to determine the exact loss for each individual claimant from receipts. In this case, it is argued by Walter Merricks that a pragmatic decision will be needed to share any compensation fairly amongst the many claimants.

Virtual Justice and a Verdict

The Supreme Court hearing was carried out on line by video conferencing due to the pandemic, which was rather strange to observe as you could only see the speaker and not the reactions to the submissions by others in the court. Having heard the submissions for and against the case, the Court is expected to give their ruling in the coming weeks.

Zero Carbon for 2050

Monica Shelley asks if anyone’s putting it into practice

I attended the Zero Carbon by 2050 congress (see full report) and it set me thinking about the practical implications of what all the experts who spoke defined as the actions necessary to achieve the aims they spelt out. I wondered, in particular, what might happen in the area where I live and what the responsibilities of the local council might be.  It seems to me that whatever regulations the government might provide, whatever specialist firms there might be to inform retrofitting and however many loans and possibly grants might be made available, in the end it was down to the local authority to make these things happen.

What is my Council doing?

Inspired by the presentations and discussion at the Congress, I wrote to the Milton Keynes Council member with the responsibility for housing and regeneration. I asked, in particular, what Council policies were in place to motivate house owners to retrofit their homes and how council-owned housing was to be updated. To what extent is council housing currently under construction designed for maximum energy efficiency?  No reply as yet. I think these are the sorts of questions, and probably more,  that need to be put to local councils.  I am sure that they have other matters on their minds just now, but these issues are not going to disappear.  Or will the Zero Carbon by 2050 ambition be revised, ignored or even forgotten?

 

Lynn Faulds Wood – An Appreciation

We were all very saddened to hear of the death of Lynn Faulds Wood , due to a stroke. Lynn was a good friend to the National Consumer Federation and a tireless advocate for consumer rights. Lynn chaired the British Standards Institution’s Consumer and Public Interest Network. In this role, she also represented consumer views on BSI’s Standards Policy and Strategy Committee.  She was a great champion of the consumer in the development and use of standards.

Colin Adamson adds a personal memory of Lynn Faulds Wood

The consumer movement had two popular or should that be populist figureheads – Esther and Lynn. Rantzen and Faulds Wood both had the knack of creating campaigns that attracted not just the support of many but galvanised the people with the power to act, to intervene and change things for the better in the consumer interest. 

I will always remember that West Coast (Helensburgh not California) drawl as she drew you in to hear the latest scandal or horror story. She had a genuine sense of indignation that the years could not dampen – things that struck the rest of us as ‘a pity and let’s move on’  sparked a campaigning instinct in her that both exposed crime and crook – she was physically very brave – and followed through to get things changed. 

Whether it was a man with an axe exposed for the consumer criminal he was or kettles with too short  – or was it too long? – flexes, she brought a freshness and a sense of authentic anger and passion to issues that gathered support and promoted action. If Lynn was interested, then the topic was by definition interesting. If she said it was wrong and needed changing, that was what happened and we are not just talking faulty toasters but strongly defended areas of professional life like surgical process and practice. 

I remember a Sunday afternoon walk with her and John and my then wife – they all worked in TV. I had been looking forward to a wine-fuelled occasion laced with TV gossip about who was seen leaving the BBC club with whom – we are talking a while ago – and was not at all prepared for the direction the conversation actually took – the detailed rundown on the state of her colon and the kind enquiries after the health of mine seasoned with spot on observations on the conservatism of clinicians. She and John were the impeccable media pair – both professional to the core and protective of each other’s reputation but looking to be bigger than the issue. Once Faulds Wood was on your case, beware. Her mannerisms made her the parodist’s dream but if that was the price of fame and a tribute to victories for the consumer, so be it.

Implacable but polite, confident in her case and cause but never self-important she illuminated the consumer cause and we all have reason – and more than one probably – to give thanks for her work and offer our heartfelt sympathies to John and her son Nick.

UK Consumer Voice still heard in Brussels

NCF Chair Arnold Pindar represented European consumers at a meeting of the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels on 5 November 2019. He attended as past President of ANEC, the European Consumer Voice in Standardisation and welcomed the progress that has been made particularly in ensuring that consumers participate effectively in the European Standardisation System (ESS), and to discuss where further progress is needed to improve inclusivity.

Participation in Standards Needs Resources

Consumers have always been able to take part in standardisation activities if they have the resources to do so. Very few countries are able to support consumer participation in standardisation activities and most rely on ANEC to champion consumer interests for them. Fortunately in the United Kingdom, the British Standards Institution has a Consumer and Public Interest Network that coordinates and funds expenses to allow consumers to take part in many of the working groups developing standards primarily for consumer protection.

The Right of Opinion

Even so, it is not possible for consumers to be represented in every committee that includes issues of consumer interest. Hence a major advance in the European Standardisation System has been the recent introduction of a “right of opinion”. This allows ANEC and European organisations representing environmental and trade unions to ask committees at key stages in the development process to look again at their drafts to ensure they (in ANEC’s case) fully protect consumers.

ETSI Refusal – NCF says ‘Think Again’

The two main European Standards Organisations, CEN (general standardisation) and CENELEC (electro-technical standards) have agreed with this additional process. However, the third Europe-wide standards organisation ETSI (Telecommunications Standards), although it has adopted some measures to improve inclusiveness of these weaker stakeholders, has refused to implement this “right of opinion”. NCF calls on ETSI to think again.

Internationally Inclusive?

Another concern Arnold raised at the meeting is that more and more European standards are developed or revised at international level. He questioned who should take responsibility for ensuring the European standards, adopted internationally comply with the European Standardisation Regulation (1025/2012), particularly as regards to inclusiveness of all stakeholders’ interests?

Reforming Consumer Advocacy in Telecoms

A MUCH NEEDED CHANGE

The NCF welcomes action to make a much needed change in the current consumer advocacy arrangements in the telecommunications sector.

NCF agrees with the remit proposed in the consultation paper and supports appointing the Citizens Advice to assume the consumer advocacy role.

CO-OPERATION WITH CONSUMERS AND CONSUMER ORGANISATIONS

However, it should be noted that the advocate will need to access a diversity of analysis by external consumers/consumer organisations who may be, on occasion, better placed to initiate investigations and conduct research. A co-operative approach can lead the way on particular issues and make a strong contribution to better regulation. NCF for one is ready to work with Citizens Advice and the Advocate and looks forward to making continuing contributions to their work.

Research into the consumer experience will be vital.  A number of recent initiatives taken by Ofcom are listed in the DCMS Consultation.  The advocate will have a role in signposting these (and similar) initiatives for consumers, monitoring their impact on the consumer experience and suggesting improvements where necessary.

FUNDING

The scale of activity could be similar to that involving energy and could be funded in the same way as existing work in relation to energy. While the scale of activity could be similar to that involving energy, we should recognise that compared to energy, telecoms involves more complex consumer/supplier relationships, often with multiple suppliers.  Advocacy in these markets could be more rather than less costly.

National Consumer Body for Scotland? Yes please and why not UK as well?

The Scottish government was consulting – till 11th September – on a Bill to  establish Consumer Scotland as a body that will identify consumer harm  as  a  starting  point  only.  Its  primary  goal  will  be  to  develop  and  advocate  for  practical solutions. To do this, it will have four key functions:

  • to provide strategic   oversight   of   the   consumer   landscape   to   develop   a   full understanding of how markets work for consumers in Scotland and ensure resources are targeted to tackle harm;
  • to conduct in-depth investigations into areas where harm in Scotland is most acute and recommend solutions;
  • to facilitate access to a consumer advice system that meets individual consumer needs and aggregates collective data to support prevention work; and
  • to comment on Scottish Government policy with significant impact on consumers, and support public authorities in Scotland to comply with a statutory consumer duty.

Jeremy Mitchell has submitted a particularly cogent set of comments for the consultation endorsing the creation of such a body. Jeremy makes the point with which we wholly agree that while other organisations such as Which?, Citizens Advice Scotland and the Trading Standards service all work for the consumer interest ”none of these organisations has an over-arching responsibility for safeguarding and promoting the interests of consumers in Scotland, Consumer Scotland’s primary function.”

And of course this is equally true of other parts of the UK – we mourn still the dismantling of an effective structure for consumer representation in England and Wales and it follows, the UK as a whole. This is not a bout of  predictable nostalgia about how much better things were in the past but an issue that will be on the agenda post-Brexit with a whole load of consumer protection legislation to be incorporated into UK law – most of which is reserved to Westminster. Readers will know that with  existing EU-based legislation being incorporated into UK law as foreseen in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the UK government will start reviewing of this legislation to see which legal instruments it considers should be amended or abolished. Mitchell points out “The great bulk of UK-wide consumer protection legislation will fall within this category of EU-retained law and will therefore come under scrutiny. There is a clear danger that the legislative structure of consumer protection throughout the UK will be seriously eroded. It is crucially important that the interests of consumers in Scotland should be identified and represented in this process.”

Hear! Hear! And of course not just in Scotland – who will do this job firstly in England and then bring together the views expressed on behalf of all consumers in the UK – the same body or a different one? The NCF will have our say but the job is too big for us to tackle with our present resources. Bring back a UK forum for the consumer interest is a view we will putting very strongly to the powers that be. Can we help form a consumer coalition to speak for all UK consumers?

Enforcement Budgets Halved

A letter in The Times of 20 August 2019 reveals that budgets and staff of enforcement agencies has declined on average by 50% over the last ten years. The NCF has been banging this drum for a while now and are happy to sign the letter and join this campaign. Consumers do not see the full benefit of laws and regulations to protect them if there is inadequate enforcement. Our Consumer Congress in December 2017 was already drawing attention to the reduction of resource – since 2009 trading standards teams have lost more than half of their full-time equivalent staff.

The Congress report listed a number of actions to be taken. We have set up an enforcement group to focus on this theme. A key action of the group has been to propose a revision of the BEIS Regulators’ Code (2014), the aim being to achieve a better balance between the interests of the Regulators, the regulated and consumers than is achieved by the current Code. In replying to the submission, Consumer Minister, Kelly Tolhurst MP, said:

“Good regulation, as promoted by the Code, supports business productivity, innovation and growth whilst maintaining clear, risk-based, protection for consumers. lt is important that the Code remains relevant and practical and I welcome the National Consumer Federation’s thoughtful views.”

Consumers need action urgently to strengthen UK enforcement and regulatory bodies who will have to take over/back tasks done at EU level. We are currently awaiting a response from the Officials in the Department’s Office of Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) on the points we raised in our submission.

There is an element of double jeopardy with reports of consumers left to their own devices to get redress with more and more representing themselves (badly) in legal actions. The justice system has seen cuts in legal aid and rising pressure on county courts and the small claims process. In the cybercrime context, The Times has reported poor practice at the Action Fraud office revealing that call handlers mocked fraud victims as ‘morons’, ‘psychos’ and ‘screwballs’ and were trained to mislead them into believing they were talking to police officers.

Effective enforcement agencies and regulators are needed more than ever and the NCF is happy to echo and support the campaign launched by Unchecked.uk:

“As a country we believe in fair play, common standards, and everyone playing by the same rules – but the truth is, the people we rely on to enforce those rules are being hamstrung. Today, we have launched Unchecked.uk to show that vital protections can no longer be taken for granted.”

The NCF, will do all we can to make sure that consumers enjoy the protections that they need and have worked for.