COVID-19: Inside test-and-trace - how the 'world beater' went wrong (BBC)

Dr Latifa Haque
November 25, 2020

The test and trace system announced in May has not been as effective as we would have hoped. In the first week of November, the ONS estimates there were 333,900 new infections → 42% (141, 804) were identified by test and trace → 70% of these people (99,212) provided details for 314,817 close contacts → 60% of those close contacts (190,129) were asked to self-isolate for 2 weeks. It is likely that only 50% of those close contacts actually self-isolated.

The inefficiencies in the system can be broken down in 2 main ways:

  1. Testing problems: this includes (a) not having enough tests, and (b) delays in getting results (due to laboratories being inefficient or overwhelmed).
  2. Tracing problems: this includes the fact that contact tracers (a) can't reach many people by phone (b) have to follow a rough script so are not able to effectively communicate and address people's concerns, and (c) waste time by calling the same households multiple times.
Food for Thought

Who is ultimately responsible for these inefficiencies?

The Government outsourced many parts of the test and trace service to private firms, instead of local councils or the NHS. This means that not only is it very expensive, but it is also very difficult to regulate. Unlike local councils, these private companies may not have the best interests of the people at heart, nor do they know the communities well. Do you think this makes a difference? What are the benefits and drawbacks of the government outsourcing these services? Do you think the Government made the right decision? Is there a compromise to be made?

What is stopping people who've been called by contact tracers from self-isolating?

Many of the people contacted will be asymptomatic and may not feel it's necessary to self-isolate. Can you think of any reason why younger and working-class people are less likely to self-isolate? What are some of the other social and financial barriers that make people less likely to self-isolate? Is there anything the government can do to encourage these groups to follow the rules?

Practice Interview QUestions
  1. In the context of COVID-19, how do you think government policy and decision-making directly affects the health of the population?
  2. If you were Prime Minister, what changes would you make to the test and trace service to make it more efficient?
  3. If you were a contact tracer, how would you convince an individual who has been in contact with someone with a positive COVID test but is not showing symptoms to self-isolate for 14 days?

Extra Reading (optional)