Test and Trace is currently an absolute shambolic mess and there’s no point pretending otherwise. Over the weekend, a mum I know of in Morecambe was told to drive over 130 miles to have her children tested, only to find that the centre was shut when she got there! I know of another woman in Skipton (that’s in North Yorkshire, if you’re unsure), being sent to Northern Ireland! This cannot go on. It’s beyond ridiculous! It also massively undermines the idea of levelling up, because families who can’t afford to travel further then have to keep their children out of school for longer, causing further disadvantage to their learning opportunities. Imagine having a fever, feeling unwell and then being asked to drive a long distance to get a test, which should be available in your vicinity. It’s unsafe. It’s also unfair to blame people for booking tests unnecessarily when a) people are only able to get a test if the people employed by Serco allow them to have one, b) children can’t go back into school, once sent home until they are proven ‘negative’ and c) the Prime Minister has promised testing to pretty much everyone via his ‘Moonshot’ approach.
It’s vital, as we enter the winter months, to get this right. Our ability to provide safe staffing levels across the NHS and enable schools to function properly genuinely depends on it. Last week at the NHS Assembly we debated the issue and a possible way forward. The contract issued to Serco is clearly not delivering what is needed, and so it’s time to take an honest appraisal of where we are and how we’re going to fix this. I know the Assembly will be writing in an official capacity to Dido Harding, who is currently in charge of the programme. In the mean time, here are my thoughts about what needs to happen now.
It’s time to value the brilliant local public health leadership we have in place across the UK and ensure these leaders are supported to lead this work by providing timely data. After investing in the training and expertise of our Directors of Public Health, why on earth at a moment for which they have been trained to provide leadership are we circumnavigating them and making it so much harder for them to do their jobs? It would be worth an apology for not trusting them to do this in the first place and to own up that ‘Serco Test and Trace’ (not ‘NHS Test and Trace’) has failed in its task.
We must ensure that local councils and Directors of Public Health have the resources necessary to lead the local test and trace approach and ensure they have the necessary powers to intervene where needed.
The whole system must work – so we need to create more capacity in the laboratories across the UK to turn around results in a timely fashion.
It’s vital that we engage regularly with local communities of many different kinds and their leaders to ensure they understand where things are up to, how we can work together to keep people safe and debunk any myths that are developing, whilst holding space for the uncertainty of the moment.
Therefore we need clear, comprehensible messages to the public – we need to empower/permission local teams to lead on this messaging in a way that makes sense for their communities without constantly needing to check back with the centre. This comes down to trust.
The NHS and Local/National Government need to become much more comfortable with using different communication channels like WhatsApp – and for young people Instagram, YouTube and Tik Tok – because this is what young people are using now to the exclusion of nearly everything else…..if we have unclear messaging and then don’t even use the platforms that young people are using, we have no right to scapegoat them (which is terrible practice anyway!).
It’s really important that testing capacity is available rapidly and flexibly in areas with outbreaks. With the R number rising as it is and the current farce around availability of local tests, we simply can’t afford for this to continue.
We must recognise the value of and therefore ensure early intervention and action ,rather than delaying decisions. This has been highlighted by Sir Jeremy Farrar, CEO of The Wellcome Trust and member of SAGE in some current learning form Marseilles, where the hospitals are back at the point of saturation.
I’m not sure how or why it was decided that Serco should run this show in the first place. However it’s clearly not working. It’s time to make brave decisions. It’s time to get this local and focused. It’s time to get this right. Our lives may actually depend on it.