The government has been accused of panic-launching its coronavirus test-and-trace system before it was ready in order to distract from the Dominic Cummings scandal rocking the Conservative Party.
The new contact-tracing scheme suffered from major technical problems on Thursday, with staff unable to even log in for most of the day and many only notified the night before that it was going live and that they would be needed.
Meanwhile the government’s test and trace tsar admitted to MPs that the whole system would not actually be “fully operational” until the end of next month – with still no date set for the launch of the supposedly “world-beating” app promised by the prime minister.
Contact-tracers working on the programme told The Independent that when they finally managed to log into the system at the end of the working day, they were presented with an empty page that contained no cases to review.
“The only explanation for the government announcing and launching this scheme when it was clearly not ready is that they wanted to try to persuade the public to ‘move on’ from the Dominic Cummings scandal,” said Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, who earlier in the day had participated in a conference call with Dido Harding, the government’s test and trace tsar.
“There is a pattern here of the government overpromising and underdelivering, more concerned about fighting negative headlines than the virus itself. All that does is further erode public confidence and trust in the important public health messages and make it harder for us as a country to move out of lockdown safely”.
Other MPs privy to the call confirmed that Baroness Harding had told them that the system would not be entirely operational until the end of June – four weeks after the government is planning to relax national lockdown rules.
Durham Police on Thursday confirmed that they had investigated Boris Johnson’s chief aide Mr Cummings, and said a breach of the rules may had taken place – contrary to Downing Street’s repeated claims.
The force said the aide, who drove 60 miles to Barnard Castle on his wife’s birthday with family at the height of lockdown, would have been spoken to by an officer and sent home had he been caught. But the prime minister has refused to sack him: Mr Cummings claims he took the trip to test his eyesight for a further drive home.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has said the beleaguered new system has been designed to replace national lockdown measures. Some school children are returning to education on 1 June – a policy that has alarmed some local authorities, teachers’ unions, and independent scientific experts.
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson told The Independent: “This half-baked announcement seems to be a desperate attempt to distract attention away from Dominic Cummings. The government has serious questions to answer over why this scheme was announced now when key elements won’t be ready for weeks.
“Matt Hancock may try to laugh this off but the public will not be amused to learn that the government is failing them yet again.”
One contact tracer, a senior NHS nurse, told The Independent they were booked to work from 8am to noon on Thursday but by 11.30am had still been unable to log in and neither had 14 of their colleagues they were speaking to.
“As nurses, we are quite angry at the time that has been wasted,” they said.
The nurse, who shared screenshots of the staff log in page failing to load, added: “Over the last few days they have run practice shifts in four-hour blocks using actors and at least half the time the system has crashed. I have done two of those and on both occasions the system crashed.
“The message from PHE [Public Health England] has been if you can’t log in just do some clinical updates and revision but you will still get paid.”
The nurse, who asked not to be named, said this was “not an insignificant amount of money” with hourly rates for senior nurses of up to £17 for a weekday, £25 on a Saturday and £28 on a Sunday.
They added: “This system should have been up and running weeks ago and my personal opinion is that we’re past the point of it making a difference now.”
Neither NHSX nor the Department of Health and Social Care responded to a request for comment about the system not being fully operational until the end of June. But asked whether its launch had been brought forward to distract, health secretary Mr Hancock laughed and told Sky News:
“It’s priceless, I’m normally accused of delaying these things and bringing them in too slowly. I committed to getting this system in in mid-May, it’s just about mid-May... you can’t accuse me both of rushing it and being delayed.
“I can’t quite work out whether you’re telling me that I’ve gone too slow or too fast, I think we’ve gone at just the right speed.”
Under the new test and trace system, anyone with coronavirus symptoms will immediately self-isolate and book a test, either at a testing centre or posted to their home. Their household will also go into isolation with them.
If the test comes back negative, they come out of isolation, but if it is positive, an NHS contact tracing team will get in touch asking them to share details of people they have been in close contact with and where they have visited.
Those people will then be asked to self-isolate for 14 days, even if they are symptom free, to avoid spreading the virus further.
The system involves an army of 25,000 contact tracers and an additional 25,000 people working to process tests, who will locate people who have been within two metres of an infected person for more than 15 minutes.
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