DR ELLIE CANNON: How did Test and Trace turn into such a fiasco?

DR ELLIE CANNON: Families bombarded with pointless calls, bullying and threats… and worst of all, Test and Trace is failing. How did the system turn into such a fiasco?

What sort of a shambles is Test and Trace? And why? Honestly, I can’t fathom it. Launched on May 28, it seemed to falter almost immediately. 

The ‘world-beating’ service was, it quickly emerged, failing to get hold of about one in five people who’d tested positive. Things didn’t improve. Last week it hit a new low – just under 60 per cent of cases reached, meaning that now two in five are missed.

Months back, I defended the programme. It didn’t need to be totally effective, I reasoned, just good enough to isolate cases and prevent a second wave. Well, we all know how that turned out.

The whole thing, as it stands, has been a whopping great £12 billion flop (incidentally, a figure that exceeds the entire annual budget for general practice in the UK). Has there ever been so much spent for so little result?

The Government seems to know it’s failing, judging by the sheepish ‘must try harder’ admission from Ministers who normally seem completely impervious to any criticism or suggestion of wrong-doing. And if my mail bag is anything to go by, many of you know it, too.

Last week, I wrote that a friend of mine had tested positive for Covid-19, along with her three daughters, aged 17, 14 and 12. Her eldest was the first with symptoms – a bit of a temperature and cough, but nothing serious – and they’d all had a swab, just to be sure. Turned out they all had it. But that’s not where the story ended.

Test and Trace started calling every family member, multiple times, to warn them they’d been in contact with someone who’d tested positive, seemingly unable to compute they were all in the same house. They had 30 calls in one morning.

DR ELLIE CANNON: Test and Trace, as it stands, has been a whopping great £12 billion flop. Has there ever been so much spent for so little result? Pictured, testing at Wavertree Sports Park

I asked if anyone else had similar tales – and your emails and letters, once again, flooded in.

Many told similar tales of being ‘harassed’ and ‘bombarded’. Astonishingly, having households of more than one person seems a particular stumbling block for the system. Did no one think to consider this?

Reader Tony Chamberlin’s story was particularly shocking. The 57-year-old retired telecoms engineer from Ipswich wrote: ‘My wife and I tested positive for Covid in mid-October and were told to isolate, which of course we both did.

‘Test and Trace then contacted me, separately, to say I’d been in contact with someone who’d tested positive – my wife.

‘The calls and messages continued all week – each giving different dates with which I was supposed to count my isolation period from, even though we were already isolating. I explained this repeatedly.

‘They often rang at inappropriate times with no way to call them back. It became quite intimidating. I then got threatening voice messages from the local council saying they were going to send someone round – apparently Test and Trace had reported me as unreachable, despite having spoken to them several times. At one point they tried to insist that since my wife had been in contact with me, she would have to isolate for another 14 days – despite her having given it to me in the first place.’

Catherine Walden’s experience was similarly Kafka-esque: ‘My husband and I tested positive last week. We told Test and Trace that we have six-year-old twins, and for the next 14 days I received three calls a day for each twin, plus the texts, all providing different and contradictory self-isolation dates. In addition I received multiple calls for myself – all while being ill and trying to get some sleep.

‘I repeatedly asked them to link the records so that, if they insist on ringing daily, I was only receiving one call per child, but apparently that was impossible.

DR ELLIE CANNON: What sort of a shambles is Test and Trace? I can’t fathom it. Launched on May 28, it seemed to falter almost immediately. Pictured, testing at Wavertree Tennis centre

‘The early calls are particularly frustrating, as they can last 20 minutes. At one point, they insisted on reading a script about how to claim statutory sick pay, even though they were ringing for a child.’

A few weeks back it was revealed that it was taking up to 11 days to get positive test results back – rendering the whole operation of testing, tracing and isolating ineffective. Many of you confirmed this.

Mark Benton wrote: ‘I tested positive, eight days after my wife and I sent off a swab. Initially, we were told our results by text, and Test and Trace called two days later.

‘As it was ten days since my swab, they said I could go out and behave as normal, but my wife, who’d by then had a negative result, had to isolate for a further four days. I’d been out shopping prior to all this, and could have infected many people.’

Some of the exchanges were almost comic – although, clearly, this is no laughing matter. Margaret Healy wrote: ‘My husband has a neurological condition, and went to hospital for treatment, but tested positive for Covid.

‘Test and Trace called seven days later, and at no point did they ask where he’d been or where I’d been preceding the test.

‘They did however ask what sex he identified as. Not a good opening gambit with a 79-year-old father-of-two.’

Other readers also said they were never asked who they’d been in contact with.

About half of Britain’s councils have been handed cash to set up their own tracing operations, which seem to fare better.

But this is hampered by lengthy delays in getting the details of positive cases from central Test and Trace – on average, two days, according to official figures, and far longer in some cases.

And perhaps the fact there are two separate organisations now working on what’s effectively the same task goes some way to explaining the endless calls, emails and texts. It’s no wonder official figures show just two in ten people actually quarantine for the recommended 14 days. Everyone who got in touch wanted to, and were trying to follow the rules. But given this utter shambles, who can blame people for giving up?

It strikes me that the Government is, as Governments always seem to be, obsessed by targets: in this case, making endless futile calls, presumably in a bid to fulfil some arbitrary ‘moonshot’ figure.

We all know that part of the way out of this whole mess is effective testing, tracing and isolating. But this isn’t a numbers game.

In early October, The Mail on Sunday outlined the backward tracing approach that has been so effective in countries such as Japan, which never had a full lockdown.

Their health chiefs say what we’re doing – trying to hunt down every single positive case – is an impossible task destined to failure.

They don’t call every contact of a person who tests positive. They don’t even test that much – their testing rate is lower than most European countries, including us.

Instead they focus on identifying the exact locations of infection ‘clusters’ – large numbers of cases – as they emerge. They contact and isolate everyone who’s been in those local areas – a restaurant, or gym or whatever else – and tell those people to isolate.

It’s not new. Our own public health teams have used backward tracing for donkey’s years, for instance when meningitis outbreaks occur.

And the idea finally seems to be gaining traction in Government, with testing tsar Sir John Bell talking last week about how it could be the way forward.

I hope they hurry up and do something to turn the tide. Lives, and our sanity, depend on it.

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