The government website strikes a reassuring note: the NHS Test and Trace service ensures that anyone who develops symptoms of coronavirus can be tested quickly to find out if they have the virus, and help to trace close recent contacts of anyone who tests positive to notify them that they must self-isolate at home.
This rhetoric is far removed from the reality. Even the name is wrong. It isn’t an “NHS” operation at all, but was farmed out to private interests with little or no experience, and with predictable consequences. Yet from the outset there were clear warnings not to bypass the expertise of local directors of public health.
The government are running out of scapegoats for the latest incompetence as we discover that, far from infections levelling out, results were somehow being lost in space. Perhaps this is what the prime minister meant by a moonshot?
Even employing Johnson’s other metaphor, closer to planet earth, how can you “whack a mole” if you don’t know where the moles are surfacing? We now know that 15,841 confirmed cases surfaced over the past week without being counted, let alone passed on to contact tracing. Of those, almost 12,000 missed the timeframe where contact tracing and isolation would have had the greatest potential for reducing the risk of further spread. That, after all, is the whole point of test and trace. It also matters when it comes to understanding where the infection is spreading and which groups are most affected in order to prioritise local measures.
The problems do not only relate to the issue of reporting, but also, for too many people, to simply tracing a test in the first place. I know of people still being directed from Devon to South Wales for example, only to find on closer inspection of the website that the test centre is in an area of local lockdown and only open to local residents. Few will risk driving 200 miles each way to a test centre, especially if they are feeling unwell, if they fear they will be asked to turn around when they get there.
The same concerns apply to those being asked to increase the viral load of their own exposure to infection whilst driving an infected individual too unwell to get there themselves. Many people are simply deciding to delay or, more worryingly still, not to take a test at all, with serious consequences for areas where the disease may be accelerating unnoticed.
Overpromising and underdelivering has long been the hallmark of the government’s handling of the pandemic, be that on the failure to protect nursing home residents and staff, our dismal record on excess deaths and even on the roll-out of the contact tracing app.
The sad truth is that the only thing “world beating” about test and trace, as for so many other aspects of their response, has been the government’s incompetence, and failure of ministers to be held to account.
Sarah Wollaston is the former MP for Totnes and immediate past chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee