Without a trace

What happened to that ‘world beating’ contact-tracing plan?

Early in the Covid-19 crisis, with the UK playing catch up with much of the rest of the world in the battle to contain the virus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that not only would Britain soon have its very own contact-tracing app, but that the app would be ‘world beating.’ By mid-May it was clear that developers were struggling and by mid-June, at a cost of £12 million, the app was abandoned, as it simply would not work.

But there was no need for concern, suggested both Health Secretary Matt Hancock and our ever-bullish Prime Minister, as the app was only part of our still, ‘world beating’ contact-tracing system. Whilst the government would now put its faith in the app being developed by Apple and Google, twenty-five thousand contact tracers were hastily recruited. Many of the tracers, the human contact for people who had contracted the virus and those they had come into contact with, have since claimed they were inadequately trained for the job.

As the system was rolled out and tracers sat by their phones and computers waiting for calls – which mostly didn’t come – we learned in a leaked email from the chief executive of Serco, one of the private companies contracted to deliver the service, that though he doubted the scheme would evolve smoothly, he wanted it to ‘cement the position of the private sector’ in the NHS supply chain.

Meanwhile, Tony Prestedge, the chief operating officer of the NHS scheme, admitted in a webinar to staff, that though the programme would be ‘imperfect’ at launch, he hoped it would be operational at a ‘world-class’ level within three to four months. Months have passed and week after week, the service continues to miss targets. Health Secretary, Hancock, admitted that the system was ‘not quite there,’ but had made big strides since its launch. Finally, the Department of Health and Social Care announced that the long delayed tracing app would, at last, be released on September 24.

Whether or not it turns out to be ‘world-class’ or ‘world-beating’ only time will tell, but most will be satisfied if it actually does become widely available – and it works.

What our surveys show

We posed a single, straightforward survey question: Has the government made a mess of test and trace?

In response, a solid majority of 63% believe the government has handled things badly, while only 25% think they have done at least ‘adequately.’ And while a contact-tracing system may at last be operational, problems with the coronavirus testing itself persist.

First, Matt Hancock admitted in the Commons that the government was ‘working hard’ to fix issues with Covid-19 testing availability but admitted it could take ‘a matter of weeks.’ And then an increasingly beleaguered Prime Minister told the Commons liaison committee that the testing system has ‘huge problems’ and that the Covid death rate was likely to start rising again in the coming weeks.

As we move swiftly towards the winter months, with cases increasing and some areas back in lockdown, there is almost certainly likely to be a still greater demand for tests. So the question remains, even though the much delayed app might at last help trace, will those revealed to need a test be able to get one?

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