Now Boris Johnson claims a “world-beating” contact tracing system will succeed in containing the virus.
Contact tracing has been used to control diseases for decades from the US syphilis outbreak in the 1930s to the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa.
Johnson said his “test, track and trace” system would be in place by 1 June. Yet every element of it is in crisis.
The government is trialling a new smartphone app on the Isle of Wight. The rollout of the app across Britain has already been delayed until at least mid-June.
And security experts have warned that it could lead to data breaches and interference from the state (see below).
Some 25,000 new workers have been enlisted in the “Operation Charcoal” human contact tracing scheme. Yet at least 15,000 of them won’t have clinical training.
Workers are already complaining that outsourcing giants such as Serco and Capita haven’t trained them properly.
Call centre outsourcer Sitel also claims to be training people as contact tracers.
One worker described how they were given just one day online training, where a single manager was responsible for teaching 100 new recruits.
“After the full day of training people were still asking the most basic things,” he said.
Other recruits have been left unable to begin as the technology won’t work on their PCs and laptops. One said, “You can’t speak to anybody, there are massive communication issues. It’s a ludicrous situation.”
The government didn’t have to start from scratch. There are roughly 5,000 environmental health workers who track the spread of norovirus, salmonella and other outbreaks.
Health expert John Ashton said these “together with currently furloughed local government civil servants could be recruited into the call pool”.
And he said these workers “have the detailed knowledge to engage with their local communities and ensure a high-quality test, track and trace service”.
A well-run human contact tracing system would need to be backed up by a quicker regime of testing.
It relies on having information about who has coronavirus. Yet the Tories have refused to properly gather such information for months.
They began with a “herd immunity” strategy of letting the virus spread.
This, and the fact that the government was woefully underprepared, explains why it dropped community testing for the virus in March.
Since then health workers, care home staff and other key workers have been unable to access tests. People who are tested face lengthy waits for their results.
The resources are there to carry out the vital work needed to tackle Covid-19. Instead of harnessing it, the Tories focus on handing out lucrative contracts to their mates in outsourcing firms.
Their deliberate failings will mean more deaths.
How does it work?
Contact tracing can slow the spread of disease
If someone contracts the virus, tracers ask for a list of people they’ve had contact with
Tracers can then advise them to isolate
If any of these people fall ill, they are also asked for a contact list
Some contract tracing uses apps that identify who people have had contact with
The app can then alert people who have had close contact with an infected person
What happens to the data gathered by tracing apps?
The government’s new app—currently being trialled on the Isle of Wight—has prompted fears from security experts and tech companies.
The app runs in the background of smartphones. If a person develops Covid-19 symptoms, the app can notify everyone they came into contact with, and advise them to isolate.
Research by cyber security experts Chris Culnane and Vanessa Teague found that the app doesn’t protect users’ privacy and could be hacked.
Their analysis shows that the data collected could be used for other purposes, or kept forever.
They also warned that hackers could prevent alerts being set out warning of outbreaks.
This would effectively render the app useless.
The research says collecting all information centrally makes it more vulnerable to hackers.
It said that data should be exchanged between each handset individually instead.
“There can still be bugs and security vulnerabilities in either the decentralised or the centralised models,” said Teague.
“But the big difference is that a decentralised solution wouldn’t have a central server with the recent face-to-face contacts of every infected person.
“So there’s a much lower risk of that database being leaked or abused.”
And because the data is unencrypted—therefore fairly easy to get hold of—it could be accessed by other agencies, such as the police.
Last week Apple and Google, the giant firms that run most software on smartphones, said the government’s method doesn’t protect data.
They released their own software updates that will facilitate other contact tracing apps in countries such as Germany, Ireland and Italy.
But the NHSX—the newly formed digital arm of the health service—said it would press ahead with the planned app.
Developing technology to try and track the spread of infection, and contain diseases, is a good thing.
But there will be serious downsides and limitations as long as it takes place under a system based on competition and profit.
Security error for Serco
Outsourcer Serco was found to have accidentally exposed the emails of almost 300 contact tracers last week. Its contract stresses guaranteeing data security.