In Depth

Test and trace: how the system is changing

Government replacing thousands of call-centre workers with ‘boots on the ground’ following flawed roll-out

Thousands of staff at “test-and-trace” call centres are to be axed and replaced with local tracking teams, the government has announced.

The “major overhaul” of the “failing” system will see “council staff knocking on doors” in a bid to reach more contacts of people who have tested positive for the Covid-19 coronavirus, The Telegraph reports.

Health minister Edward Argar told the BBC that the new approach would combine the “scalability”  of a national scheme with the expertise and local knowledge of local public health officials. 

“We’ve always said that this system would evolve, and what it’s doing here is exactly that: evolving and flexing,” he said.

What are the current issues with the test and trace system?

The NHS test-and-trace system relies on call centre-based contact tracers who attempt to reach people who have been in close contact with confirmed coronavirus carriers, usually by text, email or up to ten times by phone call.

However, reports surfaced in July that the £10bn scheme was failing to reach thousands of people, including many in areas with the highest infection rates in England. The Telegraph reports that on average, tracers in call centres are reaching just one case a month.

A number of issues have been blamed for these low success rates. Councils have warned that many so-called contacts are rejecting attempts to contact them because they assume the unfamiliar “0300” number is a cold caller.

Experts have also pointed to language barriers and missed emails as major stumbling blocks in many of the worst-affected towns, where “in some cases the virus is disproportionately affecting people of south Asian heritage”, The Guardian reports.

So what exactly is planned?

The overhaul of what Boris Johnson promised would be a “world-beating” test-and-trace system follows widespread criticism of the costly programme.

Around 6,000 of the current 18,000 call handlers will be axed in favour of a “boots on the ground” approach that will see council workers going to the homes of people who fail to respond to calls warning that they may have been exposed to the virus. 

The remaining contact tracers will work alongside the local public health teams.

Dido Harding, chair of NHS Test and Trace, said on Monday that the plan followed “successful trials in a small number of local areas”.

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