Without Covid test and trace we’ve only got half the information

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Mohammad Yasin MP in Parliament
Mohammad Yasin MP in Parliament (pre-lockdown)

We were promised a world-beating test and trace system with a shiny new app by June 1 at the latest.

But in yet another massive U-turn, the government has now officially abandoned its coronavirus NHSX tracing app, which we were initially told would be ready by mid-May.

This app, once a central part of the government’s response to the pandemic, was to be at the heart of test and trace system to allow us to ease lockdown safely.

It underpinned the risk assessments for children safely returning to school, so if an outbreak occurred, it could be managed and shutdown quickly and effectively.

But the system wasn’t operational by 1 June and the Government can’t even give us a date for when it might be ready.

Technology experts warned the government that its approach was flawed and would lead to failure.

Ministers had wanted a centralised version of the technology, in which anonymised data from people who reported covid-19 symptoms could be held on an NHS database.

In the decentralised model, no data are held in a single official database. And, crucially, the app was not supported on Apple or Android phones.

The Government has said their NHSX app can pick up better data at short distances than the Apple/Google app but what they didn’t tell us is that their app could allow a company to track you in a crowd or a town indefinitely – a privacy problem most heads of state weren’t prepared to inflict on their citizens.

More precious weeks and millions of pounds have been wasted on yet another failed, Johnson government going-it-alone, British exceptionalism approach, whilst countries such as Vietnam, Estonia, Italy and Germany have got test and trace up and running: mostly with apps based on the Google-Apple Model we have only now belatedly backed.

coronavirus testingTime and time again, experts in their fields have shown this government how to contain coronavirus, but at every turn the government has chosen to prioritise centralised control and private interests ahead of public health.

For months public health bodies, including here in Bedford, have asked the government to decentralise responsibility for testing and tracing to local authority public health teams, who already have experience in test and trace, for instance in tracking people who may have become infected by a food poisoning outbreak or a sexually transmitted infection.

Local public health teams understand their area and can develop plans that are specific to their needs and organise systems with clear lines of accountability.

Instead of fully investing in NHS laboratories, which are producing the only reliable data, the Government has given contracts to private firms who aren’t releasing their data to local teams, despite what the Government says to the contrary.

As a result, public health officials, school leaders and parents are having to make critical decisions on what is safe and what is not safe to do with only half the information they need to inform that decision.

The reality is: we simply don’t know how many people are being tested in the commercial sector, or of those how many have tested positive. We can’t be certain whether or not the R value is above or below 1 in Bedford, and we do not have any clear explanation why Bedford’s rate of lab-confirmed cases of Covid-19 is so high – and which is still increasing.

This is why I have been urging people to remain on the side of caution until we have the data to give us the confidence our community is safe to open up further.

We can’t fight the virus if we don’t know where it is, and this is as true now as it was in the early weeks of the pandemic when the World Health Organisation urged us to Test, Test, Test.

Tens of thousands of lives could have been saved if the Government had acted then and many more can yet be saved if the Government stop focussing on big announcements like lowering an arbitrary alert level before they’ve got the basics right.

 

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