Catastrophic Failures in Test and Trace System for Covid-19 in the UK
Outsourced to multiple private companies, ignoring the inherent capacity of the NHS
There are numerous examples of people with symptoms suggestive of Covid-19 being unable to access testing in their local vicinity. The on-line system has been stating that there are no tests available and please try later. People have spent hours trying to book tests.
Some people found they were offered a test in a centre several hundred miles away. Others were given test appointments in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which would have involved a long drive and then a 3-hour ferry crossing which was patently ridiculous.
The current paucity of available tests was initially suggested as due to a rationing system that would favour NHS health and care workers.
Scotland was asked to sign up for the reduced availability and categorically said no.
It was then thought to be due to a lack of laboratory workers in the privately run Lighthouse laboratories which had, up to now, been staffed partly by academic scientists. The new semester in Universities having commenced, many of these academic staff have had to return to their substantive posts leaving the laboratories understaffed. Difficult as it is to discover the truth behind the problems, this factor seems to be partially to blame.
In addition, there have been numerous criticisms of the management of data and the length of time it was taking to produce results from the tests. In some cases, NHS staff were waiting up to 7 days for results, self-isolating as required when they could have been back at work within 2 days if the results were negative.
Nor was there any consideration given to using NHS laboratories, despite knowing that they had untapped capacity, with the potential for turning around test results within 6 hours.
Some 20,000 plus staff were recruited as call handlers in a rapidly put together system run by privately contracted company Serco. This company is better known for handling asylum seeker accommodations, electronic tagging, and prisoner escort services. It was fined over 1million earlier this year for undisclosed inadequacies in a Government-funded contract. Even with this track record, and without any formal tendering process, Serco was awarded the contract.
The call handlers received patchy training on-line, then sat at home waiting to be passed calls. Many complained that no work came their way. Resultant percentage tracing calls to contacts were pitifully low. Also, the call handlers did not have any local knowledge, so in the case of localised outbreaks, the appropriate Local Authority was not alerted soon enough to bring control to the situation; regardless of the fact that there were public health specialists and experienced contact tracing staff available in local areas, these resources were entirely bypassed.
General practitioners are left out of the testing arc altogether. They are not even routinely notified of positive results in their own practice lists. This, to me, seems ludicrous bearing in mind that they have documented data on the entire population and the ability to quickly and confidentially contact patients. Granted they would have needed additional support, but I believe that the finances required to set up such support would have been considerably less than that used in the outsourcing process.
The devolved nations, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland were able to put in place more localized services and as a consequence, have managed to maintain much better control on local outbreaks.
The numbers of infections are on an upward curve again. New rules state that no more than 6 people may meet indoors or outdoors, with minor variations in the devolved nations. The next week will be crucial in determining whether the new measures are in any way successful in limiting the spread of this ubiquitous virus.