Test and Trace is still key; where’s Dido Harding hiding? – Jayne Dowle

AS Matt Hancock makes abundantly clear, we should believe no promises on when the third national lockdown might ease.

He reminds us that he is the Health Secretary after all so does have some authority to speak, but why has he suddenly gone quiet on the UK Test and Trace system which promised to be the envy of the world when it launched last summer?

Is it because, as reports suggest, the £22bn programme is under immense strain as it is being staffed by inexperienced call-centre telesales workers drafted in by public services provider Serco?

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Or is it something to do with clinicians spending too much of their time answering medical queries from under-qualified call-handlers? Or is it because Baroness Dido Harding, the head of Test and Trace, seems to have disappeared?

Are testing arrangements for Covid adequate?

The last time we saw anything of her was in November when she appeared before Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee and its chairman Jeremy Hunt slammed her for the “three per cent success rate” of England’s contact tracing programme.

Hunt pressured Harding to explain why only “three per cent of the total theoretical maximum” of people infected were self-isolating. I could answer that; because many of those unfurloughed, on low incomes, self-employed or with no recourse to government support will continue to go to work because they can’t afford not to.

Meanwhile, private consultants working for the NHS on the programme have been paid an average of £163,000, amounting to a total of £375m.

Since before Christmas, we’ve hardly heard a peep about this hugely costly world-beater except for a brief flurry from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson when he threatened secondary heads with the Army to roll out mass testing, then was forced to change his mind, close schools and shut up about it.

Baroness Dido Harding is supposed to head the Test and Trace programme, but she's become invisible.

Instead, the focus has shifted dramatically to the roll-out of the vaccines. According to a handy online calculator I found, I’m down for my vaccine in August. That’s eight months away. I’m not really sure what the plan is until then, except continue to practice social distancing, wash my hands, use sanitiser and only leave the house for essential purposes until the Government tells me otherwise.

Like millions of other people, I’m left wondering how any kind of normal life can be expected to return. Everything hangs in the balance. Everything hangs on the vaccine. This concerns me. I’m the kind of person who likes to have at least a Plan B, and ideally a Plan C and D as well.

Dare I say it, what if serious problems occur in the vaccine supply chain and/or its administration? There is already controversy over the extended 12-week time period between the first and the second dose of both the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine and the one produced by Oxford University and AstraZeneca. NHS England says it’s to “protect the greatest number of at-risk people overall in the shortest possible time”, but doubts are rightly raised.

I’m no clinician, politician or statistician, but it seems to me that the vaccine programme and Test and Trace should run in tandem. Or are we all to be corralled in our homes until, as politicians keep telling us, “the jab goes in the arm”?

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock.

It seems that even if I was qualified to have a professional opinion, I still might not be any the wiser. “I don’t really understand what the Government’s plan is,” says Deepti Gurdasani, a senior lecturer in epidemiology at Queen Mary University of London. “We were told we had a world-beating test, trace and isolate system – that completely and utterly failed to contain the virus and we have the second surge and now the third surge.”

Meanwhile in China, nearly five million people in areas around Beijing have been ordered into a strict seven-day lockdown after the discovery of a single case of coronavirus.

And here in the UK we have towns and cities with thousands of new cases every day, with seemingly still no effective means of organising a muscular response.

That’s why we need Ministers to set out a long-term strategy for dealing with Covid-19. At the heart of this would be an improved Test and Trace system run by local authorities and GP practices who know their communities well, instead of outsourced call-handlers and over-paid management consultants.

I’d say that this, above all, needs to be at the heart of the Government’s plans for the rest of 2021, if not the rest of our lives.

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