Test and Trace failing to either test or trace

As if to confirm what most of us already know, tonight’s BBC Panorama programme, Test and Trace Exposed, will reveal the extent to which test and trace simply is not working.

Alex Lee, who worked for the BBC four years ago, is the programme’s on-screen reporter. Lee was hired as a clinical contract caseworker to call people who had tested positive, tell them to self-isolate and obtain details of their close contacts. She says, “I’m pretty ashamed to say to people this is what I am doing because the whole point of me setting out to do this was to make a turnaround, to make a contribution. I feel like I’ve achieved a big fat zero”.

Achieving a big fat zero seems to be a consistent theme with test and trace. Lee says that she spoke to just one person with coronavirus during her four months with the system after it went live. Another whistleblower, Tobin Stonelake, who was employed to call the close contacts of positive cases, told Panorama he had made no successful contact tracing calls during the ten weeks he was working for the service. “It’s demoralising and doesn’t make you feel good about what’s going on with Covid-19”, he said.

The test and trace service is often referred to as NHS Test and Trace, but is in fact outsourced to the private sector company Deloitte to oversee the scheme, with Serco and Sitel awarded the lion’s share of the contracts to run the ‘community contract tracing’. The system went live in May but has been beset by problems since then, including reports that 90 percent of the Covid-19 tests are taking longer than 24 hours to produce results, adding to a sense of failure of the whole programme.

According to tonight’s programme, the latest government figures show that just over one in five people who have tested positive for coronavirus are not being reached by test and trace. This includes those cases managed by health protection teams, who continue to trace cases and their contacts in complex settings like hospitals and care homes.

The news will be of no comfort to those who live in Bradford, Leeds, Kirklees and Calderdale, who had new restrictions imposed on them on Friday night. It means that they can no longer have guests in their homes or gardens or visit someone else’s home or garden. Nor is this looking like a short-term measure.

On Friday, as the new lockdown measures were being announced, the the Yorkshire Post reported Leeds City Council’s director of public health Victoria Eaton saying:

“Restrictions will be in place for a longer period of time, potentially throughout the winter. There is no formal announcement on timescale, it is potentially until March or April time, but that is not confirmed. It will be as long as it is needed, but it’s likely that will last for several months.”

This is worrying for the whole of Yorkshire, where coronavirus infection rates have shot up in all but one area, according to Yorkshire Live, with Bradford’s rate remaining the highest in the county. Although the figures vary, depending on how you count the numbers, the death toll from Covid-19 across Yorkshire since the start of the outbreak is somewhere between 2,633 (deaths in hospital having tested positive) to over 5,400 (excess death toll).

In a bid to quell the rising number of cases on university campuses, lockdowns have now been imposed at some institutions including Manchester Metropolitan and Glasgow University. At least 32 universities in the UK now have confirmed cases of Covid-19, with Sky News reporting that this includes York St John University, the University of Leeds and the University of Hull.

Students, especially first year students who may be living away from home for the first time, are scared and confused. University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady told the BBC there was, “no point encouraging students to come to university to self-isolate for a fortnight”. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has added to students’ worries with a suggestion that he would not rule out asking students to stay at their university accommodation over the Christmas break to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Never has a “world beating” test and trace system been more needed. It is evident that the government is failing monumentally to track one down.

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Tonight’s Panorama programme exposes all sorts of failures, including how technical problems prevented positive cases being followed up. Lee is shown recording computer glitches and system errors that either prevented her from logging on, or from following up on some cases. When she reported issues to her team leaders, she was told they were widespread and affected others too.

The issue of who has access to and control of the data is another significant factor in how effectively authorities have been able to control local spikes in the virus. Panorama filmed with Leicester City Council, where officials believe that England’s first local lockdown following a spike in infections could have been avoided, had local authorities been plugged into the national system earlier.

Sir Peter Soulsby, the Labour mayor of Leicester said, “If they had been feeding through to us where the positive tests were coming from … we could have intervened at a much much earlier stage. And there [would have] been no question whatsoever of having to take any special measures, lockdown or other, in Leicester”.

Belatedly, the details of people who have tested positive are now being shared with local authorities, but only when the current test and trace programme has been unable to contact them first. Panorama filmed teams in Leicester cross-referencing information they received from test and trace with their own databases, helping improve the likelihood of tracing a positive case and persuading them to self-isolate.

None of this injects any confidence in the government’s ability to handle what is undoubtedly a second wave of Covid-19. Nor is there any indication that Johnson knows what to do next. In a sign that even his own backbenchers are losing patience, trouble is brewing for Wednesday, when MPs debate the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Review of Temporary Provisions). An amendment tabled by Sir Graham Brady, Chair of the 1922 Committee, already has enough supporters to see the government defeated.

The amendment demands that parliament has the opportunity to debate and vote on any new coronavirus measures before they come into force. The vote, unless the government capitulates beforehand, will come a day after MPs once again debate the controversial UK internal market bill, which is still causing problems.

Johnson is looking increasingly beleaguered. He is coming under pressure to show signs of progress somewhere, anywhere, domestically or internationally. With the ninth negotiating round on the future relationship between the EU and the UK taking place this week, perhaps a deal is coming – if only to get something “done”. But for the moment it is all about the pandemic, and tonight’s Panorama programme exposes just how little progress has been made with the essential measures needed to get us all through the perilous winter period.

Local AuthorityRate of new cases in 7 days per 100,000 people to Sep 23Number of new cases recorded in the 7 days to September 23Rate of new cases in 7 days per 100,000 people to Sep 16Number of new cases recorded in the 7 days to September 23

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