It’s been more than six months since the government first initiated lockdown restrictions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Right from the start, it’s been abundantly clear that any successful response to coronavirus requires a functioning and effective test, track and trace system. Even the government recognised this, with Boris Johnson famously promising that we would get a ‘world beating’ system that would keep people safe and stop the spread of the virus.
Sadly, what we have had is anything but ‘world beating.’ Instead, it’s a chaotic, catastrophic mess. In a stroke of infinite wisdom, the government adopted a disjointed approach in England – split between a national call centre led system run by Serco and Sitel and a decentralised system run by local and regional health protection teams as well as Public Health England. They decided to side-step the experience of our health service and of local authorities who have the knowledge and track record to deliver it effectively.
Unsurprisingly, the national system has been riddled with failures. According to the Guardian, 90% of tests are failing to hit the 24 hour turnaround target. Analysis has also shown a correlation between low percentages of contacts being traced and higher rates of covid in local areas. Estimates suggest that the nationally-run system has cost a staggering £900 per every contact traced.
And all of that is on top of the reports that the system is being so poorly managed that contact tracers claim they have nothing to do, with some even alleging they are essentially being paid to watch Netflix. Meanwhile, people on the receiving end of the tracing system have witnessed its bungled handling – with some people receiving as many as 45 calls from the national system.
The public aren’t stupid. We know when we’re being swindled. The latest polling tells us exactly that. 74% of the public want to see the contact tracing system run by public health protection teams. Just 14% think private companies like Serco and Sitel should be in charge.
With public opinion so overwhelmingly in favour of ditching the botched privatised system, it’s no wonder that the public have been agitating for change. In spite of the challenging organising environment, people in dozens of cities have stepped up and said that not a single penny more should be given to Serco. They’ve taken the fight to the Department of Health and Social Care to say that Serco couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery. And they even dumped horse manure outside Serco’s HQ to say that the company’s management of track and trace stinks.
It’s not just grassroots campaigners that understand the urgency of a new system. The undeniable failures of privatised contact tracing has pushed councils across the country to set up their own alternatives. The President of the Association of Directors of Public Health has called for increased funding for local, public contact tracing. They understand that crossing your fingers and hoping the private sector will get its act together in time to stop another wave of hundreds of deaths is wishful thinking at best and criminally negligent at worst.
That’s why a growing number of council leaders are stepping up and calling for Serco to be kicked out of the system and for local authorities to be funded to run it instead. As Labour’s leader of Oldham Council Sean Fielding has said, “giving local authorities the responsibility and resources to lead on tracing, would be a huge step towards controlling the virus while protecting lives and livelihoods.”
So, six months on from the first stages of lockdown, almost everyone now understands that privatising the track and trace system has been a disaster. Campaigners get it. The public get it. Local authorities get it. Among the only people in the country who don’t seem to get it are Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson. If we’re to get out of this pandemic safely, to see our friends and to hug our loved ones again, the penny needs to drop – and fast.