Coronavirus: Test-and-trace scheme will be ‘a car crash’ without big changes, government warned

Exclusive: Ministers accused of recruiting low-skilled private staff and shunning local experts while placing faith in unproven app, in attack by disease control leader

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Sunday 10 May 2020 14:02 BST
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Testing and tracing suspected virus carriers is crucial to preventing a second spike and lifting the lockdown restrictions
Testing and tracing suspected virus carriers is crucial to preventing a second spike and lifting the lockdown restrictions

The test, track and trace programme to tame coronavirus and release the lockdown will be “a car crash” as currently designed, a leader in disease control has warned in a blistering attack on the government.

Ministers are recruiting low-skilled private staff to carry out complex work and ignoring vital local experts, while relying on an unproven smartphone app, insisted a director of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH).

Speaking to The Independent, Gary McFarlane revealed the government had shunned an offer from CIEH to help train the planned 18,000 contact tracers, turning instead to Serco and other outsourcing giants.

Staff from the private firm will provide the bulk of 15,000 call handlers, while only a small number of local council environmental health workers – already skilled in tracing victims after outbreaks of salmonella and Legionnaires’ disease – will be used.

Mr McFarlane condemned the “centralised command-and-control” as being doomed to fail, warning: “We must absolutely have local intelligence on the ground.”

He explained that only local recruits would know whether possible Covid-19 cases were being traced back to buildings with tightly-packed flats, for example, and have the “investigative skills” to carry out enquiries.

“There are going to be people involved in these conversations who will have been places where they shouldn’t have been, during the lockdown, potentially with people they shouldn’t have been with,” Mr McFarlane said.

“Getting the correct accurate information from people will require certain skills. It is not just a matter of a call handler having a script of questions to follow.

“You have to be able to discern whether someone is telling you the truth and to elicit the information that you need – while, at the same time, assuring them that it is confidential and in the national interest, it’s about saving lives.”

He added: “I’m concerned that, if the system is not well designed with a very clear purpose identified at the outset, it could be a car crash.

“Until we have a properly robust process of closing this infection down when it raises its head again, we run the risk of ending up in the same position as when we imposed the lockdown – if not worse.”

Mr McFarlane also questioned the likely effectiveness of the app, amid warnings it needs a 60 per cent take-up to be effective. “There seems to be an over-reliance on it,” he said.

The app will notify users who may have come into contact with someone who has Covid-19 – but there are fears that people will be deterred by privacy fears and their phone batteries draining.

Parliament’s human rights committee has said it must not be introduced without stronger legal protections, warning it requires “unprecedented data gathering”.

The criticisms come after the head of NHS Providers, the body responsible for hospital and ambulance trusts, warned they too were in the dark about test, track and trace, which is meant to be up and running by the middle of this month.

“None of them know at this point what they’re meant to be doing in terms of that process,” Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said recently.

“If we want to mobilise for the NHS to deliver that test, track and trace approach, we need to know really very quickly what our organisations and the NHS are required to do.”

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has declined to answer The Independent’s questions about the talks underway with Serco and, it is believed, other contractors such as G4S.

Their staff are expected to be given only about one day’s training in the principles of contact tracing.

Mr McFarlane said his organisation’s members will only form part of just 3,000 higher-skilled staff to contact the “first link in the chain” – while the 15,000 call handlers try to trace everyone else.

And, despite long experience and the ability to train 1,000 people at a time, the institute was not being used. “The government are giving all of this work to the private sector,” he added.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has already admitted it has not yet been decided whether everyone traced through the programme will be given a test – or even required to isolate themselves.

In South Korea, which pioneered the tactics, anyone who has had contact with a Covid-19 patient is themselves tested and, if necessary, told to go into quarantine.

Critics have questioned why Mr Hancock has described his policy as test, track and trace, rather than test, trace and isolate, as in Scotland.

A DHSC spokesperson said: “We are working at pace to recruit 18,000 staff to support enhanced contact tracing, and all staff will receive training and support appropriate for the role they are given.

“The NHS Covid-19 app is a key part of our wider strategy to keep people safe. Testing has shown the NHS app works, and the public can be confident in its use.”

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