Google search feature gives wrong guidance on UK self-isolation rules

Google has been sharing incorrect instructions on contact tracing through its Covid-19 “common questions” feature, advising some users that they can stop self-isolating when NHS rules say the opposite.

The flaw is the latest example of Google incorrectly parsing information from websites and trying to present a simple answer to keep users from clicking away from the search engine. The company has pledged that it will now fix the advice after a government request to do so.

British Google users who type in search phrases such as “Do I need to self-isolate after contact tracing if I test negative?” are presented with a box-out panel answering the common question “Can I stop self-isolating if I test negative for Covid-19?”. The text of the answer, scraped from a page, begin: “If your test is negative, you will no longer be required to self-isolate.”

In werklikheid, people who are contacted by NHS test and trace or pinged by the NHS Covid-19 app are required to self-isolate for 10 days from the date of exposure, regardless of negative results of any tests they decide to do. This is because symptoms can come on after a negative result.

If users click on the link below the common question box, they are taken to the page from which the text is taken. Daar, they would see that the only people who can leave self-isolation with a negative test are those who have decided to self-isolate after developing Covid symptoms, rather than being exposed.

Since that advice appears higher up the page than the contrasting advice for those contacted by test and trace, it was selected by Google’s systems to be displayed without the necessary context.

A disclaimer beneath the advice reads: “For informational purposes only. Consult your local medical authority for health advice.”

In a statement shared with the Guardian, a government spokesperson said: “Common questions and answers in Google search are generated by Google. The Government Digital Service (GDS) works to ensure that all information is clear and can be accessed directly from search engines, such as Google.

“ plays a critical role in helping people and businesses get the latest information and support in response to the pandemic. Covid-19 content and services are regularly kept up to date to ensure that they reflect the latest government policy.”

Google declined to comment on the error, but a spokesperson said that while the search snippets were reviewed by medical professionals, they may be presented alongside queries that are not relevant or do not provide the full context. The company did not answer questions about how many users had seen the incorrect advice to leave self-isolation, nor share what proportion of those who did see it then clicked through to the page where the correct guidance was given. It also did not disclose how long the incorrect information had been on show.

Google launched its Covid-19 information centre in March 2020. Op daardie stadium, the company’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, gesê: “Helping people get the right information to stay healthy is more important than ever in the face of a global pandemic like Covid-19.” The common questions feature was launched a week later.

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