As each stage of the lockdown has been relaxed, the professionals advising the Government have always been clear to make the point that a fully functioning track and trace system would be needed if we were to avoid a serious spike in infections. Those countries around the world who have managed to keep infections down have been those which have a robust contact tracing system in place. Not only is there a skill in identifying who a person might have been in close enough contact with to transmit the virus to them, but it is also vitally important they are contacted and asked to self isolate as soon as possible so that they don’t potentially infect more people themselves.
The private sector companies engaged by the Government to do the “non complex” traces are failing miserably- nearly half of the “close contacts” from the same householdare not being reached by them. It has been calculated that it is costing over £900 for every person contacted by the call handlers at the private companies. It is the most expensive call centre ever and when it seems Serco were given a heads up in January that their assistance might be needed, you have to wonder exactly how long they might actually need to get their performance up to the required levels.
This is in stark contrast to the local authority led public health officials who have consistently demonstrated high levels of contact. It is little wonder Councils have begun to expand their own contact tracing operations, usually at their own expense. Councils now need the full financial support they are asking for to deliver a successful track and trace system. Councils expanding their own operations does seem to chime with what now appears to be the preferred Government strategy of trying to avoid national large scale lockdowns with localised restrictions (usually the ones without an economic impact). It is clear there is considerable anxiety about the economic impact of a large nationwide lockdown again but giving local councils the resources and information to properly monitor in real time the number and location of infections in their area will help them effectively manage local outbreaks.
However, what we are still faced with is the likely extension of the private sector track and trace contracts (the original contracts are due to expire next week) despite their miserable failure so far. Early last week there were newspaper briefings suggesting Serco and Sitel were having their operations scaled back and much of their work was being merged with the local public health teams, however, later in the week it seemed that in reality very little was going to change. That is a mistake that needs rectifying if we are to reverse the worrying rise in cases over the last few weeks.
On top of this though there need to be greater checks made on those who are asked to self isolate to make sure they actually are and a system of financial support needs to be put in place so that those who are asked to self isolate are not financially penalised for doing the right thing. There are still around two million people who cannot claim statutory sick pay and even if you do qualify you have to get by with £95.85 a week which for many is a significant drop in income. Matt Hancock conceded very early on in the crisis that he couldn’t live on that much a week yet so far Government has failed to address this.
Boris Johnson promised all non-home tests would be done in 24 hours by the 30th of June, he promised an app by the 1st of June and he promised 100,000 people would be tested each day by the 1st of May. In respect of each of these he has failed with no sign as to when they will be delivered by. Continuing to place his faith in the private sector means he is likely to fail in delivering a “world beating” test and trace system as well.