“Test, trace, isolate, support” – the Tories’ scheme fails on all counts

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An NHS contact tracer

I checked my emails late on 27 May and was surprised to see one from the NHS. The new test and trace system was going ‘live’ – not 1 June as expected, but 8am the next day!

Starting four days early would be cause for celebration if a well-planned scheme was smoothly rolled out. But this scheme seems to have been devised in a panic – “from a standing start in a few weeks” said Matt Hancock in his video message to contact tracers. Why weren’t preparations made long before?

Our training materials are mostly dry and repetitive documents (with many typing errors, showing the rush to get them out). We haven’t had opportunities to practise mock calls.

My biggest problem has been trying to set up a ‘virtual’ call centre at home with Amazon, Sitel and other software. After many hours, struggling to follow instructions with multiple personal identifications and passwords, I still hadn’t got it.

So the 28 May launch took place without me. Then I heard another tracer on the radio describing exactly the same problems. Since then I’ve read many others are in the same situation. 7,000 of us have been recruited with clinical backgrounds, not for our IT experience.

When I phoned the helpline I found the reason many of us couldn’t complete the software installations was we hadn’t been sent everything we needed. Five days later I’m still waiting! It now looks like the end of June before the scheme is fully operating.

Yet the government is pressing ahead towards ending the lockdown. The number of new cases is falling but still around 2,000 a day. These are just those confirmed with tests.

Thousands of people will be contacts of these new cases. Some will catch the virus and spread it to others before feeling unwell themselves.

A contact tracing scheme is vital to bring Covid-19 under control in the absence of vaccines or treatment. If it’s to be effective, however, testing must be easily accessible for everyone with symptoms and anyone at risk. Results need to be quickly available. GPs and local public health departments should be informed.

Those testing positive should trust their information will remain confidential so they willingly name their recent close contacts. Contacts should be traced, given advice to isolate for up to 14 days, and fully supported to do this. Full pay while off work is essential. The measly £95.85 a week statutory sick pay will force many to ignore stay-at-home advice.

Successful contact tracing depends on people who feel fine agreeing to go back into isolation while the rest of us are out of lockdown. They are asked to show solidarity to stop the virus spreading. The government must show solidarity in return, with full financial and practical support.

Employers must agree to hold jobs open and not pressure workers to continue working. Trade unions should make sure this doesn’t happen.

Test, trace, isolate, support – the Tories’ scheme fails on all counts. Tens of thousands could die as a result as a new wave of infection develops. But Serco, Sitel, Amazon and other companies will still be making money from it.