Politics

Test and trace errors leave a “gaping hole in our defense,” warns Labor

Labor’s Jonathan Ashworth has criticized the government for leaving “a gaping hole in our defenses” during the coronavirus pandemic following a damn report of flaws in the UK contact tracing system.

A new report from the National Audit Office found that “NHS Test and Trace” had not delivered enough Covid-19 test results within 24 hours and did not anticipate a sharp increase in test demand as schools and universities reopen.

The financial watchdog added that some parts of the contact tracing service had been “barely used” and some answering machines were only working 1% of their paid hours several months into the pandemic.

The Labor shadow health minister commented on the report: “The £ 22 billion Test and Trace now has a budget higher than that of the police and fire brigade combined, but has failed to identify a sufficient number of contacts and ensure that those who are contacted are able to isolate themselves.

“Instead of submitting multi-million pounds to large private outsourcing companies, the government should have invested in local, experienced public health expertise. The government’s failure at Test and Trace continues to leave a gaping hole in our defenses. “

According to the NAO report, some call processors were busy less than half their working hours in September and October, despite attempts to reduce overcapacity in the system and introduce more flexible working hours.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, concluded that the £ 22 billion system needs to improve its performance “with an emphasis on effective engagement with the public and integrating local efforts to improve traceability”.

Davies said, “The government has rapidly ramped up testing and tracing activities and built significant new infrastructure and capacity from the ground up. However, it has been difficult to test and track down as many people as possible, or get in touch with people who test positive quickly enough. “

The NAO intends to release another report in spring 2021 that will allow for a more comprehensive assessment of the value for money for the service and will examine in detail the evolution of the government’s contact tracing app.

The report released on Friday found that “a number of stakeholders” had questioned why local authorities were not directly involved in the contact tracing system from the start, “based on their existing experience with this activity”.

NAO officials said they saw no evidence that the government was considering using local authorities to handle calls before deciding to use the private sector to expand order tracking capabilities.

“As with many other government procurements during the pandemic, 70% of early value orders were placed as non-competitive direct awards as part of emergency measures,” the report said.

“[Test and Trace] Given the need to scale operations quickly, the private sector needed to be used to respond quickly, such as expanding the diagnostics industry and deploying a large number of centralized contact tracers. “

In October, Labor called on the government to get rid of “Serco” – one of two private companies hired to run the traceability system – and place contact tracing in the hands of councils and local public health teams.

At the time, Labor’s Rachel Reeves said, “For months, Labor has asked this government to put contact tracing in the hands of councils and local health teams who know their own communities better than anyone.

“Despite all the evidence, the Tories continue their system of rewarding failure by handing huge sums of money over to large companies like Serco and Sitel.”

She added, “This approach has defied experience around the world, abandoning underfunded public services to clean up the chaos days later, and leaving our communities vulnerable to rising infection rates.”

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