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The Failed Centralised Track and Trace System Is a Disaster
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When I got polio on a farm in the middle of the Irish countryside in 1956, an Irish Health Ministry official visited our nearest neighbour, a farmer called Dick Cunningham, the next day. He told him what had happened and advised him to keep his children at home. Other farmers in the area, none of whom had a phone, received similar visits and advice.

All epidemics are by their nature local events. A certain person at a certain address catches polio, TB or coronavirus. Such diseases can only be contained locally by well-organised and well-informed people able to respond at speed to identify, isolate and trace the contacts of the infected person.

Those going into voluntary self-isolation will have their lives severely disrupted so they should be told to do so by somebody with real authority and credibility and not by a voice from a call centre.

The latest lockdown restrictions imposed on four million people in the north of England is a measure of the government’s failure to set up an effective track-and-trace operation half a year into the pandemic. The centralised body charged with doing so, headed by Baroness Dido Harding of Winscombe, works less well than the ill-resourced health officials in impoverished rural Ireland more than half a century ago.

Yet finding, testing, isolating and immediately tracing the contacts of anybody who has Covid-19 should be at the heart of any campaign to combat the pandemic. Anger at the amateurism and inadequacy of Baroness Harding’s NHS Test and Trace organisation is boiling over as local councils are forced to launch their own test and trace operations. One of those to do so is Sandwell, in the West Midlands, which says that the central government service only reaches 60 per cent of cases in its area. Local officials are chary of condemning its failures because they must look to government for money and resources, but their frustration is evident.

Lisa McNally, the director of public health in Sandwell, is quoted as saying that “as soon as a new case comes in now, we’re not waiting for [Harding’s] test and trace to fail to reach them, we’re phoning the same day”. In Bradford, one of the places subject to the new lockdown restrictions, the city council says it would like to do the same as Sandwell but lacks funding. Sir Richard Leese, who heads regional health in Greater Manchester, says that local tracing is necessary to cope with cases that cannot be dealt with by a phone bank.

The calamitous consequence of this failure to establish comprehensive testing and tracing in England cannot be overstressed. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a more localised approach has had a better outcome in terms of deaths and infections. In England, however, the government has managed to get the worst of all possible worlds by combining over-centralisation with fragmented decision-making at the top. Unsurprising, it is Ceredigion, a rural county council in the west of Wales, that set up its own tracing system in March, that has had one of the lowest infection and fatality rates in the UK.

Baroness Harding, a Conservative peer and businesswoman, appears oblivious to the complaints by local councils or the reasons why the system is not working. But the results of her failure to pursue the virus with enough success and aggression to prevent its recurrence has earth-shaking consequences for British society and the economy.

The problem is that “the new normal” is too abnormal to be sustainable, except in the very short term, without devastating damage to all aspects of life in Britain. Social distancing and other regulations mean that schools and universities cannot teach and shops, pubs, restaurants will not get enough customers to survive. Anybody in the travel business, from taxis to giant airlines, faces extinction. Six million small businesses employing 16 million people are at risk.

There are three approaches to coping with the pandemic: letting it run through the population, controlling it sufficiently to let the economy restore itself, and eliminate coronavirus entirely by speedily finding and isolating whoever has it with a fine mesh test and trace system. Britain briefly tried the first option in March, until discovering that this risked massive loss of life. Since the initial lockdown it has, as have other European states, tried to reduce the number of infections to a level low enough for economic life to resume.

The upsurges in infections in the north of England, Catalonia and elsewhere show that attempting to live with the virus is not working as a strategy. This leaves the elimination of the virus by denying it hosts, the strategy pursued in east Asia through aggressive testing and tracing on a street-by-street basis, as the only feasible long-term strategy.

Such a campaign involving millions of people may ultimately prove to be the least bad option. Launching it would have been much easier six months ago before the government’s credibility was shredded by repeated unforced errors over care homes, PPE, face masks, tracing apps, quarantining. It turns out that the government did not even know by a factor of two how many of its citizens were dying from coronavirus every day. In the single week up to 17 July, the Office of National Statistics says the number of fatalities was 284 and Public Health England says it was 574. The reason for the disparity is that PHE counts anybody who tested positive and later dies from any cause as a victim of Covd-19.

The PHE approach is so contrary to common sense as to be funny, but, less comically, means that the government has been basing policies on grossly inaccurate statistics. The old jibe of some politician or pundit that the British government keeps three sets of statistics – “one to deceive the public, one to deceive parliament and one to deceive itself” – turns out to be all too true.


What is truly dangerous is not just that the Johnson government makes mistakes, but that they are very simple ones. It should not have required much thinking about by a sensible person to foreseen that frail, sick elderly people in care homes would be vulnerable; that a speedily developed tracing app might not work; that masks were obviously beneficial. Johnson keeps bleating that he and his ministers were only following the scientific evidence, but in an unprecedented catastrophe evidence will inevitably be scanty and will trail long behind events.

The allegation that Boris Johnson is a bombastic blowhard and careerist who is out of his depth in a real crisis has been confirmed all too frequently by events. There is no need to demonise him and his ministers as actively malign, like Donald Trump and his lieutenants, but their inability to get a grip on the pandemic has had a similarly disastrous outcome in both cases.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, Coronavirus, Disease 
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  1. Is The Narrative Falling Apart?

    • Replies: @Kratoklastes
  2. Contact tracing cannot be done after a pandemic is well underway–a minimal understanding of math will make that obvious to anyone.

    If you combine that with the large bureaucracies of the West (who tell self-serving lies whenever they open their mouths), the result was obvious.

    They would _fake_ it!

    They would generate a lot of reports with made up numbers and laughable claims–because that is what bureaucracies do.

    This is actually amusing for those of us with a dark sense of humor.

  3. JasonT says:

    In early March 2020, it was not quite clear that COVID-19 was nothing out of the ordinary. By mid-March it was clear that COVID-19 was nothing out of the ordinary.

    Now the nature of COVID-19, and next year’s vaccine are very clear: 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12

  4. anon[313] • Disclaimer says:

    tracing on a street-by-street basis, as the only feasible long-term strategy

    And an electronic fink in every home just like in 1984.

    • Replies: @Justvisiting
  5. @anon

    It is hilarious to listen to the “educators” in this state whine about how many people don’t have computers and don’t have Internet connections of any kind.

    Their statements are true, but none of the “experts” realized it until they tried to have remote education due to CV.

    The real world makes electronic contact tracing a hit and miss operation in most parts of the US.

    That does not even take in account the rebellious among us who just shut off our phones and computers (and are ready to pull out the batteries/unplug the routers if necessary) to keep the snoops at bay.

    Just to be clear–a hit and miss contact tracing operation is a total fail–it is actually worse than no contact tracing because with “hit and miss” the “experts” think they know what is going on–that is worse than knowing that you don’t know what is going on.

  6. unit472 says:

    Recalling the outbreak of AIDS in San Francisco, contact tracing would have been very effective and doable but it wasn’t done. Why? Because it was almost exclusively a disease of male homosexuals and gay activists did not want this fact known. Better to pretend everyone was at risk than admit it was only those who engaged in promiscuous anal sex acts. Thousands died unnecessarily.

    Covid is far more infectious than AIDS but as they have found in Tokyo and South Korea where an outbreak is traced back to gay bars contact tracing is difficult because of the local stigma against homosexual activity.

    In multicultural polyglot societies governments are not able to contact trace because many people do not want the government to know who they are because they are not even supposed to be in the country so how can a government official reach them?

    • Replies: @RodW
  7. The latest lockdown restrictions imposed on four million people in the north of England is a measure of the government’s failure to set up an effective track-and-trace operation half a year into the pandemic.

    The common denominator in all those places seems to be a huge population of imported South Asians who often live and work illegally in squalid third world conditions.

    Whichever way you try to spin it, mass immigration has been a total disaster in Blighty even if these swarthy ‘New Sassenachs’ vote for your preferred political party.

  8. Polio is caused by toxin in the environment, your contracting polio came from the farmer who sprayed his field and you swam or came into close contact with the sprayed herbicide. Covid can’t, nor polio, be caused by a mysterious particle invading a human being, simply impossible especially considering, no proof has ever existed to explain these so-called dis-eases. None! Cause happens from human interaction with his environment, wanna be healthy don’t swim in contaminated ponds!

    • Replies: @Alden
  9. American Citizen 2.0 says:

    I do not want centralized government controlling the pandemic. It’s just a way of increasing state power with no real benefit. Local public health boards should review the science and make recommendations. Some will do well. Others won’t. So you have an incentive to elect the best possible people to local offices.

  10. @Priss Factor

    That video is a very good summary of the lay of the land – until it starts with the idiotic (D)/(R) false-dichotomy. The same behaviour by governments is observable throughout the West: incompetence, conflict-riven science, and constant commands to OBEY OR EVERYONE WILL DIE.

    The fact that Fauci et al were fluBro’s in March 2020 is something that really ought to be shouted from the rooftops, too. My primary interest is the shitty quant and journomath being used to buttress the Doomer propaganda effort, but the fact that the Doomers have had to switch narratives is useful as well.

    Note that Fauci and co were also ‘mask deniers’ at about the same time… those pushing the Doomer barrow genuinely feel like their thought leaders don’t have to be consistent.

    In a sense, they’re correct – given that they have fuckwitted charlatans like Sanjay dotGupta willing to parrot their every utterance as if it’s gospel – just as he did with anti-weed propaganda for thirty years… (dotGupta’s epiphany on weed came when he finally read some of the literature that people had been directing him towards for two decades).

  11. The purpose of a system is what it does, not what it says it does.

    The purpose of this system isn’t to save people, rather it’s to ration out the death over a longer period. The end number will be the same.

  12. Alden says:
    @Missouri Bear

    Polio does not come from herbicides or pesticides, or animal waste . It’s spread by human to human and human waste contact. Swimming pools were often the way it was spread human to human. The only way Cockburn could have caught polio from swimming in a neighbor’s pond is if someone with polio had recently swum in that pond.

  13. RodW says:

    Covid is far more infectious than AIDS but as they have found in Tokyo and South Korea where an outbreak is traced back to gay bars contact tracing is difficult because of the local stigma against homosexual activity.

    I think you’re mistaken about Tokyo at least. The overwhelmingly common sites of transmission in Japan are bars with either female or male hosts, but neither of these types of bars cater to queers. The normal people that they cater to tend to meet a lot of people in the course of their daytime jobs, so they spread what they’ve picked up over drinks and chitchat in bars.

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