'Test and Trace' is a Dangerous Omnishambles

By Rupert Read and Tom Scott.

This article was orginally published in the Byline Times.

Trust is invaluable in a public health emergency. This was what our source stressed above all. As someone who has been involved in the effort to fight the Coronavirus nationally for the past few months, they are deeply dismayed by what they have seen.

The UK may soon have the highest death rate from the Coronavirus in the world. Through the Dominic Cummings affair, the Government has forfeited what public trust it had left. This should underline the importance of the UK Government devolving power to command and control structures empowered – wherever the pandemic is not being suppressed and in particular where it is growing – to bring in trusted new suppression measures in those places.

As Byline Times has reported previously, a particularly disastrous Government decision was made on 12 March: to end contact-tracing. Since then, the question has always been: when will it finally be restarted and will it be restarted in an effective way?

Minutes from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) meeting of 1 May show that Government scientists have advised that for the contact-tracing system to be effective, “at least 80% of contacts of an index case would need to be contacted”, that they would need to start self-isolating preferably within 48 hours, and that “a high level of adherence to requests to isolate is needed”. 

However, people hired to work as contact-tracers are reporting that they are receiving almost no training and that the electronic system they are supposed to be using is not functioning properly.

One described in The Guardian how the so-called “self-led” training course undertaken by contact-tracers – which supposedly lasts seven-and-a-half hours – can be completed in 90 minutes and consists of “generic dos and don’ts”. Trainers are told to refer anything they are not sure about to their supervisor, but are left unsupervised for much of the time. “I learned more about my job from watching the news than I did from those who were supposed to supervise me,” they said. “I still did not feel qualified to do it.” 

This contact-tracer decided to quit their job in view of the general chaos and confusion, saying that none of his colleagues “have any faith that we’re properly set up to fight any increase in infection rate from this pandemic”.

Another told Sky News: “I’ve just done my training with a company sub-contracted by Serco. We didn’t even have training – they tell you to read a pdf, and then do an online quiz. All of which takes an hour tops… On the phones tomorrow.”

“We’re just kind of sat there doing absolutely nothing for the majority of the day,” one contact-tracer told BBC News. “Right now, I’m just sat scrolling through Netflix. A lot of people are chilling on games.” 

Confidence in the system was not helped by comments from the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries at the Downing Street Coronavirus briefing the day before the lockdown was lifted. Asked how people would be able to tell that they were being contacted by a genuine contact-tracer, she replied: “It will be very obvious. These are professionally trained individuals. It will be evident from how they speak.”

To many, this seemed like an open invitation to fraudsters, who are extremely good at sounding “professionally trained” and have probably done more in the way of ‘professional training’ than reading a pdf supplied by Serco.

But then Serco itself is an extraordinary choice of partner for the contact-tracing operation, which involves handling large volumes of sensitive personal data. The company has an appalling track record of mismanagement of other Government contracts – for refugee detention centres, for instance, and for the electronic tagging of prisoners. The latter case involved fraud and false accounting on a massive scale, for which the company was fined £19.2 million in 2019.

From the perspective of our source, for the Government to seek to create a trusted contact-tracing system by employing a failed profit-hungry corporation is a bit like seeking to put out a fire by throwing the nearest liquid to hand on it – even if that liquid is flammable.

Serco’s record of involvement in health-related contracts is disastrous. In 2006, it was put in charge of the out-of-hours GP service in Cornwall. After numerous complaints from the public and reports from whistleblowers, the contract was suspended early. A 2013 parliamentary report by the Public Accounts Committee found that the company had presided over the falsification of data, failure to meet national standards and a bullying culture.

Serco, along with accountancy firm Deloitte (a generous benefactor to the Conservative Party over the years) is also involved in the testing aspect of ‘Test and Trace’, which appears equally shambolic – and these contracts are being awarded without being put out to competitive tender, under powers assumed by the Government in January.

All of this would be scandalous at the best of times. But a global pandemic is the worst of times for the Government to be handing the vital task of contact-tracing to discredited corporations.

In doing so, the Government has largely ignored the genuine expertise in contact-tracing that already exists in public health teams at a local and regional level, to the dismay of local councils and public health directorates. These are the bodies that should be at the heart of a “community shield” that can genuinely project the public from the Coronavirus, where we live.

Our source stressed that having a centralised contact-tracing system is likely to misfire in England, where there are profound regional variations. For instance, if a Londoner phones up a village-dweller in county Durham to tell them that they ought to self-isolate because they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus, how likely is that village-dweller to obey? Arguably, they would be far more likely to do so, if the caller knew the place they lived in and spoke with an accent more familiar to them.

The pandemic is revealing the downside of having a country as centralised as the UK. If England is to move out of lockdown with real responsiveness to local outbreaks, then what is desperately needed is for localities or regions to have the power to re-lockdown (or take whatever other emergency measures are appropriate). 

Local power, empowered local government, and an integrated-services approach is required. It shouldn’t be up to local government alone to make such decisions, but local government in conjunction with key local service-providers. Outside places such as Manchester – which has a strong metro mayor – they said there is now profound confusion as to who is actually responsible for controlling a local outbreak. They said there needs to be clarity about who has the power to re-lockdown whenever that is necessary, and that power should be appropriately decentralised.

If such decisions require central Government say-so, across most of England, then we are in a disastrous situation. Responses will be too slow and we will be dependent upon a level of Government – in Westminster – which has manifestly failed to keep us safe so far. We can’t count on the Government to be either effective and quick enough or to prioritise lives over political considerations. 

The whole system should have been stress-tested during lockdown, according to our source, to determine whether the contact-tracing system works well enough to re-open society and the economy further.

It appears that the Government is instead operating on a strategy of pushing for economic re-opening while simply crossing its fingers that this will happen without the rate of transmission and case numbers rising again. This is utterly unprecautionary

It is up to citizens to seek to assert local control, to act responsibly – and to apply all possible pressure in an effort to change policy. In the absence of an effective Government, it is up to us collectively to seek to lead – as we have done throughout.

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