John Harris

Journalist & Author

England’s contact-tracing saga is at the heart of the government’s failures

Move to include local authorities in test and trace could allow politicians to pass blame in a Covid second wave

The saga of the attempts to set up an English test-and-trace system is perhaps the central story of the government’s Covid-19 failure.

At the heart of the tale is a prime minister who promised NHS test and trace would be a “world beating” operation. Next to him sits Matt Hancock, the health secretary whose record is now indelibly associated with the smartphone app that was meant to be integral to controlling the virus, but has yet to materialise. Other key actors include Serco, the multinational outsourcing company that has previously been contracted to run everything from prisons to air traffic control – and, at a cost of £108m, was recently put in charge of recruiting and training thousands of call centre workers to establish contact with infected people and ensure that anyone they had been close to went into self-isolation.

Related: NHS test and trace to cut 6,000 jobs but strengthen regional teams

Contact tracing is one of the most basic planks of public health responses to a pandemic like the coronavirus. It means literally tracking down anyone that somebody with an infection may have had contact with in the days before they became ill. It was – and always will be – central to the fight against Ebola, for instance. In west Africa in 2014-15, there were large teams of people who would trace relatives and knock on the doors of neighbours and friends to find anyone who might have become infected by touching the sick person.

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