The latest developments in contact tracing – and why the Government is not alone in having problems with its system

Yesterday there was uproar over the fact that the Government has made another change to its contact tracing strategy. “Troubled test and trace system to be scaled back”, read one headline, and The New York Times was particularly unflattering. “England’s flawed virus contact tracing will be revamped”, began one of its articles, which also accused the system of “faltering” and being “one of many missteps that have contributed to Britain’s having the worst outbreak in Europe.”

These reports followed a press release from the Department of Health and Social Care, which was generally worded in quite a positive way, but whose opening text was taken as an admission of failure. It said that “NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England (PHE) will extend its partnership with local authorities in order to reach more people testing positive and their contacts”.

Previously the companies Serco and Sitel had been managing a centralised version of England’s contact tracing process. The Government, however, changed its approach after new research came in showing that only 56 per cent of close contacts had been reached online or through call centres.

In comparison, it was found that local teams managed to contact 98 per cent of contacts, with there already being successful council-led trials for contact tracing in Leicester, Luton and Blackburn with Darwen.

Going forward, councils will be much more involved in contact tracing, with workers knocking on doors to follow up contacts. Clearly this will make a difference, as one of the main reasons it was suggested that call centres failed to get through is that people believed they were receiving cold calls (as the number started with 0300) and did not answer.

As is so often the case in the Coronavirus crisis, the latest move will no doubt lead to accusations that the Government is chaotic, and the rest, as it had already come under huge criticism in its approach to contact tracing. Having wanted to use its own app to carry out the process initially – while shunning Apple and Google technology it has since been forced to try theirs out after running into difficulties.

There’s also the fact that the move is expensive, meaning that 6,000 of the 18,000 call handlers will be axed) from a system that cost £10 billion.

Speaking about the NHS Test and Trace system, Boris Johnson has previously said it was “world-beating” and that the UK is “now testing more per head of the population than virtually any country in Europe”; words which were not readily believed.

The truth, however, is that even if the system has had issues, he is right to boast of its strengths, with testing capacity in the UK at 338,413 since August 2.

One of the best metrics for understanding a country’s ability to test is “positive rate”, which is described as “the level of testing relative to the size of the outbreak”. In May, the WHO said that a positive rate of less than five per cent is an indicator that Covid-19 is under control in a country; the lower the better, in essence.

As of August 8, the UK’s figure stands at 0.60 per cent, a better rate than that of Belgium, Greece, Italy and Sweden, among other countries.

There’s also an element of realism missing around the contact tracing debate, with Keir Starmer giving the Government “a month” to fix its programme and teaching unions deciding that schools need the system to be completely fixed before a return to classrooms – despite the fact that children seem to have some of the lowest transmission levels.

The country is not alone, however, in having difficulties implementing this technology. Singapore’s app, as one example, was only used by 35 per cent of the population, and its government admitted the tech hadn’t been as successful as it had hoped. Australia’s system, which reportedly cost $2.75 million, has also had serious flaws, and there have been other problems and adaptations elsewhere

Clearly rolling it out is a logistical challenge of unprecedented levels, and there needs to be some patience and expectation management – not ideological point-scoring, as so often is the case in the media.

With the UK’s testing capacity having gone up so rapidly, far from being “faltering”, it may be the case that the country has more of a headstart than we think.

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Author: Charlotte Gill


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