The Secret Diary of a track and tracer “I have seldom felt so desperate”

After people working for England’s test-and-trace system told the Guardian they were making a handful of calls a month, John Crace imagines the secret diary of a contact tracer

29th May: An email arrives. “Dear Sir, I am delighted to offer you a job as one of the UK’s ‘world-beating’ test and tracers. It will be tough, skilled work, involving dozens of phone calls each day, and your training will begin tomorrow. Thank you again for your dedication. Together we can beat the coronavirus and bring the country back to normal by Christmas. Yours, Boris Johnson and Baroness Dido Harding.”

7th June: Another email arrives. “Congratulations on completing your training.” I reply that I have yet to receive any training. Hear nothing back.

9th June: I email the head of training at Serco to remind her of my existence and to say that I am still awaiting instructions. This time she replies promptly to say that the training was targeted to help workers get used to long periods of doing nothing and that I need to be focused a great deal more on being patient. The less we do, the more effective we are being.

23rd June: I have yet to make a single test-and-trace call, despite having sat at home with my phone at the ready and the TV switched off for the past 14 days. I ring my local Serco HQ to check that they actually have the right number for me. They do so, and confirm that I am in the weekly draw for the most productive member of staff over the course of the last week.

1st July: Sod’s law. Have just invited some friends over for a barbecue, when I get an alert from the test-and-trace centre to call someone. Go indoors to prepare to give the bad news they will have to self-isolate for 14 days only to find it is a non-existent number.

4th July: I’m now on a roll. I get a second alert and call the number, which goes straight to voicemail. I don’t let this go as I don’t want to be responsible for a super-spreader slipping through the net. Eventually a man picks up and starts yelling at me. I am the 12th person to have contacted him over the past few days and would I please stop interrupting his quarantine?

10th July: The call centre emails to ask me what my favourite flower is. I give this a few minutes’ thought and reply. “On balance, I think I like bluebells the best. Why do you want to know?” An hour or so later I get an out-of-office reply saying “To be honest, we don’t give a shit one way or another what your favourite flower is. It was just a way of finding out how many of you were still monitoring your phones.”

18th July: I have seldom felt so desperate. I submit my own number to the test-and-trace database just so that someone will ring me to tell me to self-isolate. Even then no one calls. I ring the Serco human resources department. After half an hour the line goes to voicemail. “If you are a test and tracer who feels their life might be entirely futile, please try calling the self-help group Test and Trace Anonymous.”

19th July: “My name’s Simon and I’m a test and tracer,” I say. “Join the club,” says a woman. “Try not to worry too much. There are thousands of us who feel the same. Some people have been doing this for months without talking to anyone. Why don’t you sign up for one of our daily quizzes?” Finally I feel like I am getting somewhere.

21st July: Totally psyched for the quiz. “Question 1: Name the woman on the Jockey Club board who was responsible for giving this year’s Cheltenham festival the go-ahead, thereby risking the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.” Easy. Dido Harding. “Question 2: Name the former chief executive of TalkTalk whose utter ignorance of the company was famously described as a lesson to all.” That would be Dido again. I’m beginning to think there may be a theme here.

24th July: Am given a number to ring by one of the other test and tracers. Big mistake. I get through to a Liam Fox who thinks I am from the World Trade Organization. “I’m sorry about all my hacked emails on the US-UK trade talks,” he says. “But am I still in line to be director of the WTO?” I suggest that’s unlikely. But on the upside I tell him he doesn’t have to self-isolate for 14 days. He starts blubbing and I put the phone down gently.

26th July: I finally get to make a call that isn’t a fake number, doesn’t go to voicemail and hasn’t been rung countless times before. As a result, I am given a €50 voucher to spend anywhere in Spain over the course of the next month.

27th July: All non-essential travel to Spain is stopped and a 14-day quarantine imposed on travellers returning from the country. Try to flog my voucher to friends stuck in Spain for €20. Get told to bugger off.

1st August: Receive a message from Boris Johnson saying all those working from home should now be working in the office. Worried, I ring the No 10 switchboard to let them know I don’t have an office. A bored receptionist says not to worry as Boris is working from his country house for the rest of the summer.