Frustrated test and trace volunteers ‘on the verge of quitting’


As confusion persists over NHS app, workers say three weeks into programme they have contacted no one infected with Covid-19

ByMike Wright

The Government’s test-and-trace programme is still beset by chaos as couriers are arriving to pick up tests at wrong times and tracers have told The Telegraph they are “on the verge of quitting”.

Volunteers who joined the 27,000-strong “army” recruited to call confirmed Covid-19 cases and those they may have infected, have said they have still not made a single call more than three weeks after the service’s launch.

The revelations come as it emerged last week that the system is failing to reach around one third of people who have tested positive for coronavirus.

The Government’s test and trace programme was dealt a further blow this week when it announced it is ditching an £11-million project to build its own contact tracing app after running into technical difficulties.

The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said on Thursday that the NHS is switching over to Apple and Google’s version of the app, which may not be ready until the winter, after learning its model worked on only about one in 25 iPhones.

The setback puts added focus on the performance of the human contact tracing service which the Government launched on May 28, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson lauded it as a “world beating”’ service.

The programme’s 27,000 contact tracers are divided into three tiers to track down people who may have had contact with confirmed Covid-19 patients.

Tiers one and two are made up of Public Health England employees and former medics, whose job is to contact people who have tested positive for the virus and obtain phone numbers and email addresses of those they have had contact with.

The third tier, made up of lay volunteers, is tasked with calling those contacts and advising them to isolate for 14 days.

Yet figures released by the Government earlier this week revealed that of 8,117 people who tested positive for Covid-19 in England between May 28 and June 3, only 67 per cent were reached by contact tracers. 

Meanwhile, this week, contact tracers told The Telegraph they were still idle three weeks after the programme launched. One former medic said he had been unable to book in any sessions to take calls since day one due to IT failings.

The tracer said: “I have made zero progress. I still cannot do anything and I think I am on the verge of giving up. I just feels like I am wasting my time.”

Another tier-two contact tracer said that tracers are now being stood down due to a lack of work, but could return for a second wave. 

He also warned that callers were running into problems with some parents who are reluctant to have their children swabbed for tests.

Meanwhile, people concerned they may have Covid-19 have reported problems with getting tests picked up from their homes.

One person, who asked to remain anonymous, said that they ordered a test to their home on Monday after feeling unwell over the weekend.

After taking the swab she was told a courier would collect the time-sensitive sample between 8am and 4pm on Wednesday. However, she received a note that morning saying a courier had come at 7.06am and she had missed her slot.

The woman said: “When I phoned the NHS testing service number on the note the woman told me, ‘this is a problem we’ve had a lot lately’.  

“The tests are time-sensitive and the window for analysing the sample is just 48 hours, so the one I took has to be destroyed while I wait for the next one to arrive.”

Following the criticism, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “The new NHS test and trace service is up and running and is helping save lives.

“We have over 27,000 contact tracers in place who have all been trained and are fully supported in their work by public health experts and we are grateful they are playing this important part in the Coronavirus response.

“Thanks to them, over 87,000 people have already been advised to self-isolate who might otherwise have unwittingly transmitted the virus.”

Meanwhile, the professor behind King’s College London’s Covid-19 symptom tracker app said the NHS “hampered” his team’s work as they worried it would detract from the Government’s now aborted contact tracing app.

Prof Tim Spector said the university’s tracker, which now has 3.5 million users, could have had wider take-up and yielded more detailed information about the virus had the health service supported it.

He told the Observer: “They were very worried about our app taking attention away from theirs and confusing the public.”


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