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Coronavirus: tractor production

The Guardian is doing the failings of the government’s “test-and-trace” system, with no fewer than four critical articles. Yet, for all that, it was a real struggle summoning up enough energy to read them. It’s not that I’m not interested, and a scan of one of them suggested that the paper did have some new material to offer.

Unfortunately, for all the novelty value, the story is still the same – the same one I’ve been writing about for weeks if not months: the “test-and-trace” system, as the government insists on calling it, is pants and, what is more, it isn’t going to get better any time soon, if ever.

Actually, my money is on it never getting better. As I’ve long been writing, almost to the point of tedium, the only way it is ever going to be effective is if it is firmly rooted in a well-resourced and financed local government, with a well-honed local, regional and national infrastructure, to enable local staff to function.

In the first of the quartet of articles, however, we have John Harris evaluating the “boots on the ground” effort at local authority level, finding it wanting.

This, apparently, is not for want of trying but, as Harris observes, part of the instructions given to the locals is to ensure “continuing data capture and information loop at each stage that flows through Joint Biosecurity Centre to recommend actions … Underpinned by a huge public engagement exercise to build trust and participation”.

Frankly, any system that can write that sort of incoherent garbage has to be all bad. But the worst of it is that the authors are probably beyond salvation. If they were pets in that much agony, they’d be taken to the vet and put down as an act of mercy.

If one sneaks around the corner to see what Sarah March is writing, though, it gets worse. The system that was supposed to be fully operational on 1 June is now not expected to work at full speed until September or October – according to Tony Prestedge, the chief operating officer of the scheme.

And while one is absorbing that piece of news, we find that the chief executive of Serco – one of the main companies contracted to deliver the service – has communicated his view. He “reveals” his doubts that the scheme will evolve smoothly, but nevertheless is staying with the programme, because he wants the scheme to “cement the position of the private sector” in the NHS supply chain.

Personally, I don’t have this lefty thing about private provision on the NHS, but I do have a serious hang-up about the “test-‘n’-trace” system being in the NHS at all. It should be rooted in local teams employed and managed by local authorities.

These should be working alongside a network of public health laboratories and regional surveillance centres, the latter feeding a national (UK) surveillance centre and reference laboratory, with the whole system responsible to the Department of Health, where ministers take strategic decisions, and formulate policy within the framework of their incident control teams and advisors.

The way it is currently structured, therefore, it is never going to work. The system is either locally-based or it is nothing. You can tweak a top-down system until the cows come home but it is never going to be effective.

And yet, in the Telegraph a few days ago, the news was of a massive “shake-up” in Downing Street, with two centrally-run committees – one covering strategy and the other operational delivery – taking over to “shape Government’s approach to pandemic”.

Here, it will come as no surprise, is evidence that we have a prime minister who has learnt nothing. We are now nearly five months into the epidemic, the disease is quite obviously still not under control, and there are many indications that things are about to take a turn for the worse.

Yet, here we have Johnson, with the wreckage of past policies and failures stacking up around him, indulging in more of the failed doctrine of centralisation. And part of this, it seems, is so that some of the prime minister’s top team can focus on the “Brexit” talks.

The committees, incidentally, are to be known as “CO”, presumably for “operations”, and the other as “CS”, for “strategy”. Together they spell out “COCS”, which just about sums up Johnson’s approach to the management of this epidemic.

We also learn that Number 10 is ending the weekend press conferences – supposedly due to low audience figures, and only holding them on weekdays, when the number of people watching them are probably just as low. I have long since stopped watching them – all we get is a diet of unmitigated bullshit that contributes nothing to our knowledge or wisdom.

Some of that we saw at PMQs last Wednesday, when Starmer challenged Johnson to tell him how many contacts had been traced by his new system, and then twitted him about statistics which “still fall well short of…expectations”.

Johnson immediately rounded on the leader of the opposition, declaring that “test and trace” was “a vital tool in our armoury” and that testing levels were ” an astonishing achievement”, demanding that Starmer should “pay tribute” to the “tens of thousands of people working to support the Government”.

Needless to say, the prime minister didn’t answer the question about the contacts traced, but we have the Guardian cite an “anonymous worker” saying: “The communication and training have been terrible from the start and I’m yet to know anybody who has made a call to a member of the public”. The worker goes on:

The only official recognition of this came on 1 June, when remote contract tracers were told by e-mail that their hours would be reduced “owing to a lack of cases coming through”. Another email said: “With the operations in its early stages, the data volume at the moment is not at full capacity, and as such you may experience prolonged periods of waiting for a case”.

With over 1,800 cases of Covid-19 having been reported yesterday, and each case delivering an average of five cases, that should have been around ten thousand cases to be going on with – albeit not enough to keep 25,000 workers busy. This is two and a half workers to every contact.

But only the most extreme incompetence could have a massive workforce sitting idle, when even the majority of cases that do get reported go unchecked – not that it makes much difference.

So defective is this system that even the Telegraph is moved to report that it is “full of weak links”, with the leader of a volunteer pilot scheme saying that: “the idea of the UK having a ‘world-beating’ coronavirus contact tracing system was ‘government by soundbite'”.

Here, the man has got it in one. We have a government reeling off statistics on testing, in the manner of Soviet governments in the past boasting of tractor production figures meeting the “five year plan”, never admitting that the system was so inefficient that most of the tractors had no wheels.

And that is what is so offensive about this government and its leader. Not only do they feed us bullshit, they don’t even try to hide it. Either they simply don’t care or they must believe we are stupid enough to believe them.

Also published on Turbulent Times.


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