There’s a new conspiracy theory about the coronavirus which is being spread widely online.
Tweets like this are typical:
Collectively, posts alleging the government is secretly using the Covid-19 testing programme to collect DNA samples from its citizens have now been shared thousands of times on social media.
Like most of the other coronavirus conspiracies, it doesn’t have any basis in fact.
The Home Office has just passed a statutory instrument called The Coronavirus (Retention of Fingerprints and DNA Profiles in the Interests of National Security) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 – but it has nothing to do with coronavirus testing.
A Home Office spokesman told us: “Owing to the ongoing impact of coronavirus, the Government has further extended the retention deadlines for biometrics data being retained by Counter Terrorism Policing for national security. The extension is supported by the Biometrics Commissioner.”
The new legislation gives police more time to hold on to certain suspects’ fingerprints and DNA profiles, which they would otherwise have had to process and potentially destroy under existing law.
This is because the Conservative-led coalition passed the Protection of Freedoms Act in 2012 – tightening the rules and introducing time limits on how long police can store biometric data.
This statement by the Office of the Biometrics Commissioner – the independent watchdog which reviews how the police use DNA and fingerprints – makes two things absolutely clear about last week’s change in the law.
First, it wasn’t driven by government ministers. Counter-terrorist police asked for the extension, because the Covid-19 epidemic has left them overstretched.
“These specialist police teams and those providing information to them have had significant disruption because of Covid-19, both directly because of infections and as a result of government measures taken to control the spread of the virus. Those involved in this work require specialist training and security clearance and therefore could not be replaced easily or quickly increased in number.”
Second, the DNA and fingerprints we are talking about were taken by police investigating serious crimes: terrorism and offences relating to national security.
That is actually spelled out in the new legislation, if you read down far enough: it only applies to fingerprints and DNA collected under various pieces of counter-terrorism law or the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.
At no point in the new regulations is there any mention of coronavirus testing.
There is simply no connection between this change in the law – which is all about relieving pressure on police investigating terrorism – and the NHS Test and Trace programme.
What happens when you get tested?
Of course staff at testing stations don’t take people’s fingerprints, and any one of the millions of who have had tests carried out will confirm this. What about DNA?
Well, most people who are tested for Covid get a PCR or “swab” test. This usually means that a long cotton bud is used to take a sample from the nose and the back of the throat.
The sample is then tested in a lab to see if genetic material, called RNA, from the virus is present. There is no evidence that this test is ever used to identify an individual person’s DNA.
While the assays used in the test can also detect human genetic material, this is only to be sure the test has worked and “won’t give DNA fingerprint information in the way required for forensic examinations”, according to Dr Tania Nolan, an internationally recognized molecular biologist and expert on PCR testing.
No one’s fingerprints or DNA are recorded when they get a Covid test, and the statutory instrument passed last week has nothing to do with testing.
People promoting this theory online are actually linking to this new law, as though it proves them right. But this is based on a misunderstanding of what the law says.
Imagine how many staff working across testing sites and laboratories across the country, in government the police and the NHS, would have to be in on this secret plan to misuse the testing system – without giving it away.
We would suggest that this theory doesn’t pass the common sense test, and we would encourage people to stop spreading inaccurate information that could undermine trust in the Covid testing system.