The UK government said their track and trace system would be world-beating. In fact, most pubs have a better one.
At The Lighthouse Inn, Burnham-on-Sea, a customer tested positive for Covid-19. Landlady, Jess Green, rang the 90 customers who had left their contact details, to let them know.
Whether they went into quarantine is uncertain, but what is for sure, the government’s system of test and trace has completely failed.
On May 5th, the government revealed its first contact-tracing app. On June 18th, they said the app was flawed and it would switch to a model being developed by tech giants Apple and Google.
Since then, we have been stuck with the stuttering NHS Test and Trace service (T&T).
Those who can be tested are people with symptoms of illness. Only NHS, social care staff and care home residents can be tested for antibodies.
If you feel unwell, you can get a test and must self-isolate, along with the rest of your family. If you test positive, you must share information promptly about your recent contacts through the NHS T&T service to alert other people who may need to self-isolate.
That’s the idea.
Unfortunately, if you have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus, you will be contacted by an 0300 number, which 99% of people ignore and block.
In the UK, we have a testing capacity of 326,000 and around 190,000 tests are carried out daily. At the moment, around 1,000 of these are positive.
A lot has been written about the fact that, compared with a few months ago, people catching the virus tend to be younger. During the course of the two months to July 24, the share of people diagnosed with coronavirus aged between 18-64 increased from a weekly average of 24% to over 40%, according to NHS England.
This has led to Preston Council warning young people “Don’t kill granny” after it discovered that half of new cases in the Lancashire city were occurring in people aged under 30.
They say the problem is that younger people, who tend to have more social contacts, are most likely to be asymptomatic, but can still spread the virus. However, this begs the question; if you are only tested because you have symptoms, how do they know there is an increase in infection among young people who are asymptomatic?
Are these figures based solely on professional footballers, cricket players and NHS staff, who are regularly tested as a matter of course? Could be.
There is an acronym worth knowing; FETISH.
In order to contain public health threats, you need effective local systems, using people on the ground who have knowledge of communities, schools, workplaces and cultures. Outsourcing or centralising is the wrong strategy. The government gave overall responsibility to Dido Harding, who has no public health expertise.
T&T is not enough; what is required is FETISH: Find, Explain, Test, Trace, Isolate, Support (home visits).
This is a system that uses people already employed to do their jobs and costs nothing extra; so far the UK government has spent £10 billion on T&T, £6.5 bn has gone to the private sector and they have spent £56 million on management consultants to completely fuck it up.
To be fair, the UK isn’t the only country that has struggled with T&T.
Like the UK, Norway abandoned their system. The US arrived late to the party. Singapore’s app, TraceTogether, was launched in March, Switzerland was the first country to release an app based on Google and Apple’s exposure notification system, in May. But it was only in August that Virginia became the first US state to launch an app using the Apple-Google system.
Ireland’s app has one of the world’s best adoption rates; 37% of the population downloaded it in the first week. Germany’s system has been downloaded by more than 20% of citizens, and has been such a success it has been advising other governments on how to build theirs.
Many decentralized apps don’t collect information on the number of alerts they are sending out, in order to protect privacy, and that includes both Ireland and Germany, which makes success hard to define.
Every case matters.
Digital contact tracing apps do not need to be adopted by the majority of the population to be effective: they can work with lower adoption rates, even if they’re not quite so effective. It really isn’t all or nothing.
Colm Harte, technical director of NearForm, the company that created Ireland’s app, says that “if you break even a few transmission chains as a result of the app, for me that’s a success.”
People’s hopes for contact tracing apps were extremely high early in the pandemic. But apps were never going to end covid-19 on their own. Peter Lorenz, one of the leaders on Germany’s Corona-Warn-App, says it’s important to put contact tracing apps in context.
“The clear stance from the German government was that we’d use every tool available to fight this, including traditional methods like testing, distancing, masks, and manual contact tracing, but we’d combine it with technology.”
Work in the open to get public trust.
Both Ireland and Germany made the source code for their apps open for anyone to inspect. “We did that right from the start, so community feedback could go into the code before it went live,” says Thomas Klingbeil, who is responsible for their Corona-Warn-App.
Germans are particularly aware of data protection, and developers were conscious of Norway’s example, which suspended its app after criticism from its data privacy watchdog. Germany switched from building its own centralized app to one based on the Apple-Google API almost immediately, which proved a good decision. Ireland did the same. And they both designed their apps with privacy in mind, following a principle of “collect as little data as possible.” All of the information gathered by the apps stays on people’s phones rather than being sent to central servers. It is encrypted and automatically deleted after 14 days.
Set the right parameters.
Building a contact tracing app is difficult. Although Apple and Google relieved some of the pressure of development, it’s still up to the authorities to set the parameters. How long do you have to spend with someone to be likely to have caught coronavirus? Germany settled on 10 minutes. And how close do you need to be? Some countries say one metre, others two.
But these are tough questions given the basic science of transmission isn’t settled yet. If you make the rules too loose, you let people who might have been exposed to covid-19 slip through the net. On the other hand, if you’re too strict, the app sends off loads of unnecessary notifications, so people uninstall the app.
That’s why Germany’s public health body, the Robert Koch Institute, is running tests to simulate scenarios like parties and bus journeys. They are trying to tune the app’s parameters so they measure exposure as accurately as possible.
Give it time.
It’s too early to judge how effective contact tracing apps will be, and since the rollout coincided with lockdowns and other suppression methods, it has made some efforts look like failures, because they aren’t sending enough notifications.
But Ireland and Germany’s teams are quietly confident that as time goes on, the apps will prove more effective as part of an overall approach to battling the disease.
“We didn’t have this the first time around. This will make a big difference when the second wave comes,” says Lorenz.
T is also for:
The travel industry is in turmoil. Business class flights are probably on ice for the foreseeable. If you can’t get the perk of decent business travel, what’s the point in business trips? It will probably be best to continue meeting on Zoom and to coordinate any essential business meeting with a personal holiday. You can become the office hero by taking quarantine for the team.
These are, indeed, strange times, but one of the most outlandish things to happen recently, is that our useless ex-PM, Theresa May, is currently being paid £100,000 a time, to make a speech.
The jewels in the UK crown are the NHS, the BBC and the Royal Family. Two of the three are untouchable, but the BBC is getting a right old kicking.
Yes, like the NHS, the BBC is a bloated and inefficient corporation, but it’s the only thing between us and Fox News. It was announced this week that two companies (one owned by Murdoch of course) want to launch news channels to compete with the ‘woke’, debauched and elitist BBC. The radio waves are already overrun with Murdoch’s racists (Talk Radio etc.) and we now need the BBC more than ever; its civilising influence is the only thing that stops us becoming America.
To this end, I propose that on Thursday evenings, instead of watching our neighbours applauding the NHS, we should paint ourselves as rainbows and sing Land of Hope and Glory until the government promises to leave the BBC alone. Even if no-one knows the words.
A great quote appeared in the Times last week. It came from a friend of Boris Johnson, who said: “ At the beginning of every big job Boris takes over, he prefers to stand back and act as chairman … But there comes a point at which he gets fed up and personally intervenes. I think we’re quite near that now.”
Take your time Boris…