The UK’s World-Beating COVID-19 Test and Trace System is Missing Something: Tests
I told myself I wouldn’t do this, but today it’s well and truly time for a rant on my coronavirus state-of-affairs opinion.
I am not a medical professional, and I’m not trying to give medical advice. I’m just someone trying to get by during this pandemic and finding the UK Government advice and pandemic control systems just a little bit laughable.
In the UK, our new NHS test and trace app has just been released. Adverts on every social media channel have been bombarding me all morning, asking me to download the app. There’s certainly a lot of money being thrown at the second version of this app, reported to have cost millions.
Unlike some, I’m not scared about the Government having my data, as they probably have far more from various forms I’ve filled out over the years, or they could just ask Facebook. In fact, by showing me adverts via Facebook and Twitter they probably already got more information about me than the app will give them.
I downloaded it, but I’m not sure this is app going to do any good whatsoever. Why? Long story…
Random Observations on the App
To begin with, the app only holds information for 21 days. How are you going to really track the spread of the virus in that time, when it can take two weeks for people to show symptoms?
Next, Bluetooth drains my battery, and I usually turn it off. For now, I’m specifically keeping it on for this app, and I’m pleased to note the app does remind you with a notification to turn Bluetooth back on if it’s turned off.
Now, one of the articles I read this morning encouraged families to download the app as supposedly the Government are keen to see how children are passing around the virus. Makes sense, but when you see the app you’ll note that you can’t specifically note how many people you are representing or what ages they are.
When you “Check your symptoms” it presumes you mean your own personal symptoms. So when you follow through to the test booking service it isn’t really going to know whose test is being tracked back to the app.
Let’s back up a bit.
I’m a mum of four. Since just before the official UK lockdown began, in mid-March, when my 1-year-old daycare-going daughter spiked a raging fever and had me on the phone to 111 all day for a coronavirus test they didn’t think she needed because no-one in our household had been to China lately, we’ve been doing our best to stay at home. It didn’t matter that we had no idea where the other daycare parents had been recently. After an emergency GP visit and a long trip to a distant pharmacy, we had antibiotics. No test.
Daily exercise, groceries and work have been our only non-home-based events since March. Since restrictions eased a bit, we’ve had grandparents visit briefly, but now that the UK has the “Rule of Six” in place, we can’t have any visitors. Netflix and Disney+ have been keeping the kids sane for months. We’re trying to do the right thing.
At the start of September, the UK sent their kids back to school. Teachers and school heads have been frantically trying to work out how to social distance using already over-crowded spaces. Solutions involve isolated class bubbles, separate short lunch sessions, and lots of hand sanitiser. All of it, probably pointless.
No-one at my kids’ school is wearing a mask, because the teachers figured the kids would fiddle with them and spread the germs quicker. Perhaps. It doesn’t really matter what the teachers try to do, because as soon as the kids get a chance they’re sliding down slides together and playing football. They all touch the same handrails and they all breathe the same air.
In a school of 130 kids in six bubbles, what happens when one kid in one bubble gets the virus? If that bubble gets sent home, along with anyone who has a sibling in that bubble, who is left? Maybe half the school? Face it. By the time we know one kid has it they all probably will.
Now here’s an interesting thing. Schools went back at the start of September, and confirmed UK COVID-19 cases spiked about two weeks later. For a virus with a two-week incubation period, this is really unsurprising to me. What is surprising though is that no-one is mentioning it. I’m not into conspiracy theories, but I am a bit of a cynic. I think it’s possible there is a UK press blackout on linking rising COVID-19 cases to schools.
Does the Government think that we’re not going to make the connection? That we’re going to think the kids are completely safe and can’t spread the virus? The kids are not really 100% safe from the virus at school, and the teachers have been put in a ridiculous position trying to ensure they are.
Yes, it’s possible that kids are less affected by the disease, but I personally believe that the reason we didn’t see many cases in kids before now was because we were all keeping them at home where they weren’t exposed to it at all.
Those Pesky Young People. Ok, Boomer.
The media have also been blaming “young people" for the spread of the disease, citing people ages 20-40 and insinuating they have been out partying, which is quite the insult to this age group, really. Some people have been out having fun, for sure. But so have older people. I know more 50-70 year-olds that have been out visiting restaurants and bars in the past month than under 40-year-olds.
I guess you need to flip this around and ask “What are all these young people doing to expose themselves to the virus?”. My guess is that most of them are working. These people are the bulk of the shop workers, waiting staff, bar staff, bin collectors, and customer service staff. These are the people most likely to be catching public transport and physically going to work. These people can’t often work from home, and often work in small spaces alongside coworkers and the public.
Even those of us working from home have in recent months been very strongly encouraged to go back to the office. Having seen via Zoom how everyone in my office is failing to keep 2m apart or wear masks, I’m not sure that the office is a sensible place to be.
These 20-40-year-olds also are also the main age group who have kids. Kids in childcare and kids at school. What caused them to get the virus? My bet is on work, transport or kids.
Wear a Mask
I have been keenly following articles detailing how the virus spreads, especially some very interesting reads on exactly how aerosol-borne viruses spread, and how this one might be behaving. The likelihood of catching the virus through sharing an office/classroom/bus and breathing the same air for more than 15 minutes seems pretty high, especially if someone sneezes or coughs.
It seems unfathomable that it took until August for the UK Government to mandate mask-wearing in certain public places. As one very sarcastic friend of mine said, “That’s like wearing a condom after the woman is already pregnant". We should have mandated mask-wearing sooner.
Now, two weeks ago, my 7-year-old son suddenly had a cough. I couldn’t tell if it was a dry cough or not, and all Government advice said to get tested and isolate the family. I started trying to get a test for him. It takes a good 10 minutes to fill out all the details and NHS numbers before you even get to putting in your postcode and seeing if there is a local booking free for you to take.
I tried for 12 hours straight to get him a test, refreshing that page over and over. During the night, around 1am, my baby started coughing too. I was wide awake now, checking the test site for a time slot. Still no luck, as there were no bookings free.
Facing Isolation at 2am
By 2am, I started considering the impact of a two-week isolation for the whole household. My partner wouldn’t be able to work and wouldn’t get paid. We’d have to survive on the food, toilet paper, and nappies currently in the house. Had I prepared adequately?
I have a full freezer, and a cupboard full of tins, powdered milk and bread mix, so I could feed everyone the basics if I had to. I had two mega nappy bags, and I could make the baby wipes stretch two weeks if I was careful. I know it takes two weeks just to get a delivery slot at Tesco or Asda at the moment, and you’re never really certain of getting what you wanted into your order without it being deleted for not being in stock that minute, or actually having it arrive on the day due to stock levels on the delivery day.
I live within sight of a grocery store, but I wouldn’t be able to go in for two whole weeks. I have two toddlers who consume three pints of milk a day, plus older kids who would want to make use of our stash of cereal, so really I needed a better way of getting my family food. I know full well that 15 minutes after that milk runs out there would be riots in this house… I need my coffee.
At 3am I was signing up for a local milk, bread and vegetable delivery service. I’d found a supermarket alternative for cleaning products and pantry goods. I was wondering if I had enough of our regular medicines to get us through.
I was panicking a bit.
Confusing Government Advice
It actually took a while to confirm that the self-isolation advice was for when you are certain it’s coronavirus symptoms, not for just when someone had a cough that might be a coronavirus symptom. So as long as I was certain it wasn’t a dry cough we didn’t have to isolate. Now, how could I, as a layperson, be certain that this random cough wasn’t a coronavirus symptom? I know, a test!
I noted, while refreshing the test booking form repeatedly, that if I were to visit the test station I could only get a test for myself and three passengers. Sure, if even one person tests positive we can guess the other family members with the same symptoms probably have it too. But how does that affect the statistics? Wouldn’t it be better to just give out one test per household and then note the NHS numbers of everyone else in the family likely to be affected? Or is that too obvious?
I Would Walk 500 Miles
The form to book a test was receiving a lot of backlash in the press at the time, sending people 100s of miles away for a test, ensuring that symptomatic people with sick kids had to use highway petrol stations and toilets on their way for testing. Smart.
Why wouldn’t you put an automatic distance limit into the app? Who would have thought of that? Unprecedented.
Grateful for Snot
Finally, my son woke up and told me he “coughed up snot" and showed me a hand covered in phlegm, which may be the first time in my life I’ve ever been pleased to hear and see something so disgusting.
So, it was just a regular, snotty cold. Sure, he may have also contracted coronavirus, but he had no symptoms of that at all, so we could continue to behave as normal. Sure enough, he passed the cold around and the kids were off school for a few days anyway. Good times.
The Cough, Part II
Fast forward to yesterday and the school tells me they’re sending him home for coughing, and they won’t let him back until he has a negative COVID-19 test. I explain that it’s a regular snotty cold that he caught two weeks prior and already took time off school for and he’s been coughing that whole time.
In fact, he’s had a weird cough for years which definitely wasn’t cured by the trial asthma medication, but we haven’t worked out what it is yet. The kid is going to cough. Also, getting a test is impossible. But the school staff are understandably worried and want to keep all the other kids safe. An impossible task for them.
Strangely, even if my kid had actually shown coronavirus symptoms on his first day of coughing, the Government advice would be for him to be back at school around now. The UK currently says 8 days isolation if you’re living alone, or 14 days if you live with others, just to ensure the contagious period has passed. So, he would have been back the next day.
But I understand the school’s predicament, and my son’s dad managed to miraculously book him a test right near my house for 1pm. After my 12-hour frustration two weeks before I was pretty impressed.
At 1pm I show up at the test station. They ask me for a QR code, so I have to message my kid’s dad to get the code. He never got one. Didn’t know that he was supposed to have one. The guy at the testing station tells me it has happened a lot, as people think the process is finished and booked when they’re not quite done yet.
What sort of a system relies on supplying something so specific at the end of the booking without warning people first? It would only involve a message on each page saying “When you have successfully booked, you will be supplied with a QR code. Don’t leave the site until you have it.” Simple.
So, the test station can’t test my son and they suggest I park nearby and try to book again. There are at least 10 members of staff waiting to supply tests, but no-one else there being tested at the time.
I begin the process of entering in all my details and my son’s details into the test booking site again, only to find there are no test bookings available near me. I am literally sat at a test station at the time looking at testers who are waiting around eating chips.
Refresh, refresh, refresh. Nothing. No test bookings. People start arriving at the test centre, and one by one they all get turned away for not having QR codes. Several cars are now parked at the station refreshing their phones furiously while the testers wait for someone with a completed booking.
I guess we’re doing slightly better than some test stations. Here we have testers doing nothing but turning people away. At other UK test stations we’ve seen people with booked tests turning up to find no staff on site. The media had to tell them all that there was no-one coming to test them.
No Test For Kiddo
I eventually give up and call the school. They aren’t sure what to do either and decide to send home one of their precious 10 emergency test kits with my older daughter. The headmistress and I reason that this is probably still the cold he was off sick for two weeks ago, and he’d be back at school the next day anyway even if that had been coronavirus. She says he can come back after the weekend, and if I don’t use the test I should take it back to her as she might need it. We muse on what exactly counts as an emergency, figuring it’s probably intended for teachers, and reason that a kid who has been coughing up phlegm for two weeks probably isn’t one. She sends the test home to me anyway. I’m left confused. So, he doesn’t need a test before he can come back to school now? Or does he? Is this a new cough? Are we worried? None of us are medical professionals, so it makes sense to ask someone who is, or maybe do a test.
Also, consider that my son has managed to pick up a cold while in his well-cleaned school and in his school bubble. He managed to pass it on to his baby sister even though I make him shower and wash his outdoor clothes when he comes home from school each day. And they say coronavirus is more infectious than your average cold? Our efforts to not bring home the virus are probably pretty futile, really. We should possibly be telling people just to stay at home to avoid coronavirus.
No Tests At All
Meanwhile, the test booking system has gone from saying there are no bookings to saying that there are no tests left at all in my area.
Refresh, refresh, refresh. I Tweet about the irony of our world -breaking test system being taken out by school administrators asking for tests to keep their students safe. Who could have predicted they’d want to do that? Unprecedented.
Strangely Low UK Coronavirus Figures
It has occurred to me that if the tests are limited and people can’t get tested, our UK daily reported case number is way off. Whenever the case numbers are presented, no-one ever says “but tests are unavailable to most people right now, so the actual case rate is probably a lot higher”.
We would get a better idea of what it really is if we calculate back from the death rate and the world percentage of deaths per case rate, and adjusted for the fact that deaths occur a bit later than the day people get the virus. But that number would probably be quite large, and we wouldn’t want to alarm the UK public by showing them large numbers. If we did, the people might not want to “Get back to work" and send their kids into virus incubation factories. I mean, schools.
Kids With Nits
Seriously, who got the idea that kids won’t pass around the coronavirus as much as other people? Kids… They bring home colds, flus, norovirus, and nits. Every week it’s something new with kids, and the whole class picks up anything going around.
There is nothing the kids can’t pass around with their snotty noses, disgusting habits, lack of true understanding, and disregard for consequences. Kids are not exactly known for being sensible about germs. My toddlers would literally pick up toys from the floor that have just been in other kids’ mouths and put them in their own. I’m sure if a kid in any of my bigger kids’ classes gets coronavirus, my kids will pick it up by giving them a hug.
These days in school, I hear some kids are playing tag by licking their hands and running around screaming “Coronavirus”. Kids will find a way to spread it if they get it. Trust me.
Oh, and don’t think parents can just tell their kids not to do reckless things that pass around diseases, because we can’t even anticipate what to tell them. We tell them to wash their hands and not touch things, then they burp in each others faces, wipe snot on the tables and swap lunches.
And parents know all too well that saying “put your shoes on” usually needs to be repeated 40 times before you can actually leave the house, so “wash your hands at school” probably isn’t getting through, and for some reason I forgot to say “Don’t share drink bottles, even if your friends are thirsty”.
Test and Trace, Part II
Today, I wake up and the UK Government is begging me to use its new and improved NHS COVID-19 test and trace app.
I hunt around for information on the app before installing. Some articles about the app tell me you can book a test through the app and this would allow them to track the test results too, so I figure I could give it a go.
Not for Me
The symptom-checker part of the app doesn’t even want to know that I’m not talking about my own symptoms or that my son’s symptoms began two weeks ago. Without really thinking, I say the symptoms started today so I can progress to the test booking. It redirects me to the all-familiar test booking website, only now it doesn’t save his details into the web form and I need to re-enter them each time I go back. So, of course, I’ll just use the page in future, not the app.
The app has also now decided that I am living solo and need to self-isolate. It has started counting down to when I need to stop isolating. 8 days. Not even any mention that households with more people should isolate for longer. Or a way of telling it that the dates are off or that the symptoms went away or weren’t even mine.
Will it stop counting down when that test I couldn’t book comes back negative? I wonder how many other people are being told to self-isolate? Will the app tell people they’ve been in contact with someone that should have been isolating (according to the information in the app that I can’t correct)?
Why doesn’t this app even mention in the notes that a family should isolate for longer? The app links to a page for more information where it merely says to “isolate for the full period advised by your isolation countdown tracker”.
So it seems the app is giving out misleading information that will actually cause people to end their self-isolation too early. Wouldn’t it make sense to automatically show a 14-day isolation countdown and then say if you live alone you can end at 8 days? Then people would be less likely to under-isolate due to a misunderstanding. Surely, after spending a reported £12-£35 million creating this app, someone on the team might have considered that.
Do the Bus Stop
So, given that we don’t actually need to isolate, and I still have one kid to get to school, I found myself at the bus stop this morning with my 8-year-old. I consider that this is the most contact I have with strangers on a regular basis, and realise that this fancy new app isn’t going to even register the presence of any of the other people there. As far as the app is concerned, I am alone.
Everyone else at the bus stop is under 16 at a guess, and the app doesn’t cater for under 16s. My daughter doesn’t exist to the app and neither do they.
Obviously, there are going to be a few rule-breaking teens who rebelliously lie to the Government and click the “I am over 16" button. But even if they did, they probably aren’t allowed to have phones on them at school. The app will probably be registering them as spending a long day in close proximity to the phones in the other lockers. Meanwhile, at the bus stop, the only way the app is doing anything useful to contain the pandemic is if one of these teens is a rebel. Rebel with a cause?
That said, I look around at my non-tracked teenaged bus stop companions to note that they’re all wearing their masks and standing 2m apart — these teens are more sensible than the people in my office.
They’re staring at my daughter who isn’t allowed to have or wear a mask at school, meaning she won’t be wearing one on the bus either. There are three different school uniforms represented at the bus stop, and I recall that some of these teens have already had a confirmed COVID-19 case at their high school, which is probably why they look terrified about going to school and spending time on the bus with my unmasked daughter.
Don’t worry, though. Kids don’t pass around the coronavirus, they say.