Contact tracing fiasco: You can’t believe a word the government tells us

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An NHS contact tracer

The track and trace system in England is now in its third week. Another brilliant success, if you listen to Boris Johnson and Tory ministers!

Like their other ‘successes’ – PPE shortages, testing failures, delayed lockdown and travel restrictions, care home negligence, escalating unemployment and more – the reality is nothing like government spin.

After many hours struggle setting up as a home working contact tracer, I successfully completed all the steps. Logging on after that I was excited to receive details of my first case. After re-reading the procedures and questions to be asked, I phoned the number – which blocked the service’s 0300 number, so I could get no further!

Since then I’ve worked another 20 hours and had two further cases assigned to me – one of which went to answerphone. Matt Hancock claims “25,000 contact tracers are working hard”. If my experience is anything to go by – and there have been similar reports in the media – many of us are waiting for any work to arrive.

When I try to book more shifts, the chart shows none available for the next month. A newsletter from the NHS assures us that more shifts are added daily. I’ve started checking daily – a trickle have appeared in mid-July.

This system has been set up in a rush. The government abandoned the existing local public health contact tracing on 12 March. These have long been used for measles, TB, food poisoning outbreaks and other infectious diseases. Local services coordinating with GPs are more likely to be trusted, have important local knowledge and – if properly funded – could have been stepped up to meet the increased need due to Covid-19.

Instead, the Tories are handing Serco up to £90 million to run the new national service. Amazon and other profit-making companies are also on the payroll. Many of the 25,000 contact tracers are part-time on zero-hour contracts, 18,000 employed by Serco and Sitel.

Telephone medical consultation recordings have recently been leaked by Babylon, a profit-making GP service, used by Matt Hancock himself. This will fuel doubts about confidentiality in the new contact tracing scheme.

A successful contact tracing scheme is vital, with full pay and practical support for anyone asked to isolate for 14 days. Investing in public health services, with democratic control by their workers and the people who use them, would be far more effective in defeating this pandemic than the Tories’ big business system.