NHS Test and Trace whistle-blowers claim the service doesn’t work – and some say they haven’t even dealt with a single case.
An army of 20,000 contact tracers were recruited to call people who had tested positive for Covid-19 and obtain details of their close contacts.
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The service in England was branded a “shambles” from the first day of operation back in May when staff were unable to log into the system.
Complaints only seemed to continue when as it emerged tracers had been given so little work they were sleeping and even going shopping on the job.
Now, more whistle-blowers have come forward and told BBC Panorama that the system designed to reduce the spread of coronavirus does not appear to be working.
Alex Lee, a former journalist who retrained as a healthcare professional, said in four months, she has only spoken to one person with coronavirus.
Also reporting for tonight’s programme, she said: “I’m pretty ashamed to say to people, this is what I’m doing, because the whole point of me setting out to do this was to make a turnaround, to make a contribution.
“I feel like I’ve achieved a big fat zero.”
Alex was hired as a clinical contact caseworker when the service launched in May.
Shocked by how little she had to do while working for the Government’s flagship scheme to control the killer bug, she decided to start keeping a video diary.
She can be seen on her computer, wearing a telephone headset ready to call cases and clicking a button labelled “start tracing” signalling that she is available.
Alex also records computer glitches and system errors that either prevented her from logging on or following up some cases.
When reporting issues to team leaders, she was told that they were widespread, affecting others too.
Another whistle-blower, Tobin Stonelake, told the programme he had made no successful contact tracing calls during the 10 weeks he was working for the service.
He said: “It’s demoralising and it doesn’t make you feel good about what’s going on with Covid-19.”
Panorama spoke to 19 coronavirus tracers who expressed concerns about a similar lack of work, or technical problems.
The latest Government figures show that just over one in five people who’ve tested positive for Covid-19 aren’t being reached by NHS Test and Trace.
It comes as the new NHS contact tracing app finally launched across England and Wales last week.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers – which represents all NHS Trusts in England – said contact tracers having too little to do in the summer months was acceptable, as long as the system could cope with a rise in cases.
He told the BBC: “It wouldn’t seem to me to be a massive error or failure to create a test-and-trace system in which you’ve got more people than you need, particularly in the summer months when we know the transmission rate may be lower.
“What you do need to be ready for is when transmission rates increase, which they might do in winter.”
What you do need to be ready for is when transmission rates increase, which they might do in winter
He added that NHS Test and Trace “has now become as important in a sense as catching criminals, fighting fires and treating heart attacks.
“It’s a key public service and when it doesn’t work, then we all suffer,” he added.
He said that going into winter, the country would need “probably four times as many tests as we’ve currently got”.
And he said there was a need to build testing facilities much closer to where people live and work, and reduce turnaround times for results.
NHS Test and Trace cut 6,000 staff at the end of August, with plans for some tracers to work alongside local public health teams.
Some local authorities say it’s a move that was made too late as lockdowns may have been avoided had information been shared from the centralised system sooner.
Sir Peter Soulsby, the Mayor of Leicester – the first city in England to go back into local lockdown – said: “If they had been feeding through to us where the positive tests were coming from…
“We could have intervened at a much, much earlier stage. And there [would have] been no question whatsoever of having to take any special measures, lockdown or other in Leicester.”
The details of people who have tested positive are now shared with local authorities, but only when NHS Test and Trace has been unable to contact them first.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “NHS Test and Trace is one of the largest testing and contact tracing systems in the world.
“The service is working hard to break chains of transmission, with almost half a million people who may otherwise have unknowingly spreading coronavirus contacted and told to isolate.
“We’re working with Directors of Public Health and have more than doubled the size of local health protection teams to increase local contact tracing and stop outbreaks.
“We are also providing tests at an unprecedented scale – over 225,000 a day on average over the last week – and expanding capacity further to provide 500,000 tests a day by the end of October.”
They added that any technical issues which emerged with the establishment of the new service have been resolved quickly.
It says whilst it keeps staffing levels under constant review, it is right to have capacity in the system as the infection rate and thus call handler requirement can increase at an exponential rate on short timescales.
- BBC Panorama: Test and Trace Exposed is on BBC One tonight at 7.30pm or afterwards on BBC iPlayer