Test and trace

Boris could easily curb the ‘pingdemic’, so why won’t he act?

Was there ever a national crisis which was so easy to solve? There are reports of supermarket shelves emptying, petrol stations running out of fuel and panic-buying. This in not unprecedented. Yet on this occasion the government doesn’t have to deal with a bolshie trade union, enter difficult negotiations with an EU which is determined to punish us for Brexit or even handle the early, unknown stages of a pandemic. All the Prime Minister has to do is to announce that the changes to the Test and Trace system already earmarked for 16 August – when fully-vaccinated people will no longer be forced to self-isolate for ten days but could be

Can Boris and his ministers agree on the point of the Covid app?

What is the point of the Covid-19 app? Ministers seem to be as in the dark about the answer to this question as the rest of us, with the government tying itself in knots over whether it means anything at all to get ‘pinged’ and told to self-isolate. Downing Street has contradicted Business Minister Paul Scully, who said this morning that there was no need to self-isolate if it was just the app that alerted you. He told Times Radio:  It seems that there is a genuine schism in Whitehall ‘The app is there to give…to allow you to make informed decisions. And I think by backing out of mandating

The ding-dong over being ‘pinged’

‘Ping, ping, ping went the bell,’ sang my husband, making his eyes wide and jigging in his best imitation of Judy Garland, ‘Zing, zing, zing went my heart strings.’ The effect was horrific. And ‘The Trolley Song’ doesn’t go ‘Ping, ping, ping’ but ‘Ding, ding, ding’. Everything else has been pinging, though. ‘Missing a holiday because you’ve been pinged can be a big disappointment,’ remarked the Daily Mirror, solicitously. The pinging in question is that of the NHS Test and Trace phone app. Incidentally, the government has made a breakthrough in moral philosophy during this pandemic, distinguishing between should and must. ‘If the app tells you to self-isolate, then you

What is the purpose of test and trace?

At yesterday’s press conference, Boris Johnson announced that his government was shelving plans for domestic ‘Covid certificates’ (i.e. vaccine passports), at least for the time being, although this won’t stop private businesses or venues from deciding to use them.  We also learned today that it won’t stop the creation of a two-tier system (as Lara Prendergast warned months ago) for the ‘jabs and jab nots’. New policies have been confirmed that will allow for the double-jabbed to skip quarantine if they’ve been in contact with someone who tests positive for Covid-19 (with exemptions granted to under-18s as well). It’s hard to herald ‘freedom day’ when younger people risk being forced back inside by

The virus threat has changed. Now Test and Trace must too

Under what circumstances can a government restrict the liberty of the people? An example was given last year: in a public health emergency, to contain a pandemic which threatens to overrun the health service. Opinions may differ on how close we came to this in March 2020, but the question remains relevant now. Is there any realistic threat, today, of the NHS being overwhelmed? And if not, why is Test and Trace still pinging and confining thousands of people every day? When the Test and Trace system was introduced in May last year, it was supposed to prevent another lockdown. In the absence of a vaccine (there was no guarantee

Test and Trace was an expensive failure

Before we had vaccines, NHS Test and Trace was supposed to be the breakthrough that would return us to a normal life. After all, testing, tracing and isolating contacts of infected people was credited with keeping Covid infections down in South Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere, so why wouldn’t it work here?  Instead, we had a second wave and the return to normality was reversed. In September, Sage, the government’s scientific advisory committee on emergencies, was dismissive, saying Test and Trace was having only a ‘marginal effect’. A report by the National Audit Office in December, by which point the system had already cost taxpayers £22 billion, was equally scathing. At

The damning verdict on NHS Test and Trace

SAGE has already poured cold water on the NHS Test and Trace system in England, suggesting in September that it was making only a ‘marginal’ difference to Covid infection rates. Now the National Audit Office (NAO) has had its say, publishing its interim report into whether it has been value-for-money. It is not much more flattering.  It depicts a hugely-expensive system which leaves many of its staff sitting around with little to do and which is failing to make contact with nearly as many people as it needs to in order to work as SAGE says it needs to. The budget for Test and Trace over the whole of 2020/21,

Could ten million Covid tests a day get Britain back to normal?

In all the excitement about the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, it was easy to miss news of the other great hope for getting our lives back to some form of normal. Vaccines are not expected to have much impact for most of us this winter and it will be several years before they suppress Covid-19 globally. For now, a mass testing programme — not any jab — is probably the best chance of putting Covid back in its box. It has been piloted this week in Liverpool and it might be coming to us all in the near future. No one’s exactly sure yet how it will work, but you

This lockdown comes at a high political cost

Keir Starmer has his first attack line of the next general election campaign. He will say that England’s second lockdown was longer than it needed to be because the Prime Minister didn’t act when he had the chance. If Boris Johnson had listened to the scientists, Labour will say, we’d have had a two week ‘circuit-breaker’ and controlled the virus. As things stand, a man who set his face against lockdown was then forced to adopt one — making it longer, more painful and costing far more jobs. A couple of weeks ago, there was a clear dividing line: Labour wanted national measures; the Tories wanted regional ones. So Starmer

Sunday shows round-up: Brandon Lewis defends refusal to extend free school meals

Brandon Lewis – Our position on free school meals ‘is the right one’ Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend the provision of free school meals over the school holidays has seen the government facing considerable criticism, with Labour forcing a vote on the issue in the House of Commons last Wednesday, which was defeated by 61 votes. A rift has even developed within the Conservative party itself, with Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee, writing in the Spectator on the conservative case for the extension. Sophy Ridge asked the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis why the government was holding out against the campaign: BL: I think

The Covid testing trap

We are in a time where money has lost meaning and value, so perhaps the £10 billion plus spent on Test and Trace doesn’t merit comment. But what do we get for our money? Well, we get a daily case tally which provides headlines for media outlets and endless graphs. We get a regional breakdown which shows us ‘hot-spots’ and we get an army of testers who follow the positive cases. We then find the virus in specific regions, chase it with more targeted testing and usually send the region into local lockdown as more positive cases are identified. This cycle has been going on in some shape or form

The reason coronavirus cases ‘tripled’ this weekend

The dramatic jump in UK coronavirus cases from 7,000 reported on Friday, to just under 13,000 on Saturday, to a fraction below 23,000 on Sunday is not a dire as it seems – though it is not good news. What has inflated the numbers for Sunday and Saturday are a staggering 15,841 cases where the specimens were taken between 25 September and 2 October. In other words, there was a serious lag between a swab being taken and the result appearing in the government’s official figures. The reason for the confidence-destroying lag was a glitch in two of Public Health England’s ‘legacy’ computer systems, which meant that data was not

Boris’s Dunkirk moment

It’s hard to deny that Boris Johnson’s government has so far had a ‘bad war’ against the pandemic. Our death toll is high compared with other countries and our economy is in worse shape. We face rising cases, increased hospital admissions and more restrictions. It’s all so bleak; yet that is why now is precisely the moment for Boris to imitate his great hero, Winston Churchill. In the coming months, Britain can play as pivotal a role in a global victory against the virus as we did in the second world war. The war analogies only go so far, of course. We are fighting a virus, not an evil ideology.

Is our test-and-trace system ready to stop a second spike?

We are going to hear a lot about Test, Trace and Isolate (TTI) in coming weeks, as we approach autumn and fears of a second wave of Covid-19 grow. Now we have moved away from national lockdown but do not yet have a vaccine, the test-and-trace system is our main bulwark against a resurgence of the disease. But how good a defence is it? A study published in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health this week suggests there is a huge amount at stake. Academics attempted to model what would happen in various scenarios over the coming winter, assuming schools return either full-time or on a part-time rota basis —

Has the abuse of ‘test and trace’ started already?

I was followed three times in five days by men I didn’t know. During a pandemic – at any time, really – you would think they would have something better to do. They made gestures, shouted, catcalled, but I managed to lose them each time, partially because they had none of my details. They didn’t know my name, my number or my address. But what if they did know that information? What if they had been working at a bar I had gone to with friends and given my contact details over, for test and trace. That was the experience of one young woman this week. Shortly after she went

Are only one in nine Covid sufferers being tested and traced?

There is little chance of a safe escape from lockdown restrictions unless NHS Test and Trace is picking up most of those infected with coronavirus, and those who have come into contact with them. How is it doing so far? It is early days, but it looks as though only around one in nine of those with the illness are being reached. Here are the numbers that imply too few infected people are being contacted. According to government data, details of around 1,160 people per day were passed to the contact tracers, of whom only 770 were actually contacted. That compares with between 1,500 and 2,000 people per day who

Britain’s contact tracing conundrum

If there is hope, it lies in contact tracing. The countries that have successfully managed Covid-19 outbreaks and reopened without second peaks (at least so far) have done so through extensive track and trace infrastructure to prevent recurring outbreaks, sometimes after instituting general lockdown. The UK plan is no different: for weeks, ministers have been talking up efforts to build a UK infrastructure to handle the difficult task of rapidly testing every suspected case of Covid-19, and then quickly contacting everyone they may have recently come into contact with, and testing them too. The effects of these efforts where they work can be dramatic: South Korea had a recent outbreak

Should we be using GPs to track and trace?

A simple and compelling point was made on Peston by former WHO director Anthony Costello last night: the UK already has a potentially world class network for track and trace in its GP surgeries. But these are being sidelined as outsourcing giants Serco and Sitel have been hired to organise clinical and non clinical people to sit at the end of a phone to have conversations with symptom sufferers to get them tested, trace who they’ve been with and (presumably) monitor their progress. According to Costello, GPs are not even allowed to order a Covid-19 test for patients (those patients have to do it for themselves). Now it may be