Get on top of the Virus

t was announced last week that we’re officially in a recession. In other news, the Pope is a Catholic.

More than a million and a half people have signed-on in the past few months. Many more don’t claim. I spoke to one lad, perhaps in his late thirties. “I didn’t bother signing on,” he told me, “There’s no point. I’ve got savings.”

He’s done everything right – worked hard, been careful with his money, saved up. He’s a driver, taking what work he can, part-time, on reduced hours. His lifetime’s savings are evaporating.

The idea that we will see a V-shaped recovery is optimistic. That would mean recovering at the same rate as it took to crash. But why is a virus tanking the economy? Our annual winter flu crisis doesn’t.

To stop the virus, we have to change the way we work. Fewer people allowed in a building. Goods handled in a different way. Individual tasks taking longer. Whole employment sectors closed down. Because we don’t know who has the virus, and who doesn’t.

A recovery depends on an effective track and trace system. Until we’re all confident we’re safe, we can’t end physical distancing.

On the 11th February, the SAGE meeting acknowledged that Public Health England did not have the track and trace capacity to cope with a pandemic. The existing system had worked for smaller outbreaks. There is a network of skilled professionals in every local area that do this work all the time. Call me obvious, but I would have funded extra capacity for those teams, already in place, on the ground.

What did the government do? Delayed three months before launching a contract tracing system on 28th May. In the mean time, the UK suffered one of the highest death rates in the world.

On the 12th April, the Health Secretary announced the new NHS app for contact tracing. You could download an app on your phone that would detect other people’s phones using Bluetooth. If you developed symptoms, those you’d been near would be notified. On the 24th April, we were told it would be ready in weeks. On the 28th April it would be ready by the middle of May. On the 4th May the app was piloted on the Isle of Wight. It would go national at the end of May.

Unfortunately, the app could only worked on 4% of Apple phones and 75% of Android phones. Undeterred, on the 18th May Downing Street announced that the NHS contact tracing app would be launched nationwide in the “coming weeks”.

In mid-June the inevitable U-turn came. After two wasted months, Government asked Apple and Google to take over the design of the Track and Trace app. This might be available by Christmas, but no promises. World beating? You decide.

So where are we now? If you test positive, you’re told over the phone to self-isolate. You’re asked who your contacts are. They are then told to isolate for 14 days.

According to ministers, only around 76% who test positive are successfully contacted by the national tracing system. On average, people give 2.5 contacts. This is clearly under-reporting. They might not even know who they were near in a queue or a shop. Of those contacts given, only around 52% are successfully contacted.

We have no data on whether people follow the instructions. Or if those told to isolate develop symptoms.

£10 billion has been allocated via private contracts to run test & trace nationally. It is clearly underperforming. Local public health teams are the experts. Government should fund local authorities to do the job properly.

There is growing evidence that people in the lowest-paid jobs are not cooperating. There are 5 million people working in the gig economy. The vast majority cannot work from home. If asked to self-isolate for 14 days, they can’t earn money to buy food or pay their bills. They might lose their jobs.

Government must give all workers the ability to self-isolate without losing pay.

The only way to recover the economy is to get on top of this virus. Keeping people safe and protecting the economy are two sides of the same coin.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 17.8.20