NHS Test and Trace Whistleblower: “It’s a Complete Shit Show.”

“Is this Humpty Dumpty? We’ve been given your name by someone who tested positive for COVID-19. DO NOT FALL OFF THAT WALL. YOU MUST REMAIN ON THAT WALL FOR 14 DAYS.”

I’ve been contacted by a track-and-tracer who works for one of Serco’s sub-contractors. She’s a Tier 3 tracer (nothing to do with lockdown ‘Tiers’), which means her job is to call people who’ve been named as contacts by confirmed cases and advise them to self-isolate for 14 days.

Sounds straightforward, right? Wrong. I’ll let her take up the story.

One of the most significant problems is the level of calls people are getting. People regularly say they feel harassed and bullied by us. I often call someone who says that they have just put the phone down on another contract tracer and while I’m on the line more calls are coming in.

I’ll give some examples to explain why this happens.

Tier 2 call handlers are tasked with speaking to someone when they test positive to take the details of everyone they’ve been in contact with two days prior to the onset of their symptoms, up to the time they began their 10-day isolation.

Tier 3 operatives (me) then call all these contacts to tell them to isolate for 14 days.

BUT this is an example of how it typically goes down. A household of six students have all tested positive. All six then name their other five flatmates to the Tier 2 operative as contacts and each time an operative is given a name they have to log it as a separate contact. That means this particular household generates 30 contacts, all of which are logged in the system and passed on to 30 different Tier 3 tracers. Each student then gets five calls from five different tracers, all telling them the same thing. And they can’t say, “I want to stop you there. I’ve just been called by one of your colleagues.” No, you begin the call by telling them it’s being recorded and they can’t hang up until you’ve got to the end of your stupid little script. So they have no choice. The truly absurd part is, I have to tell them to self-isolate for 14 days even though they’ve just been told by a Tier 2 operative that they only have to isolate for 10 days because they’re a confirmed case. They then ask, “Which is it? 14 days or 10 days?” The answer is 10, but plenty of my colleagues don’t know that so confirmed cases who’ve been named as contacts end up having to isolate for four days longer than they have to. Typically, they’re told they only have to isolate for 10 days by me, but then one of my colleagues calls them up and tells them they have to isolate for 14 days. And then we end the call by telling them that if they don’t self-isolate for the required number of days they will be fined a hundred pounds.

Luckily, the students are an understanding bunch. Much trickier is when you have adults in this situation who live in intergenerational households and are looking after elderly parents and children and feeling a bit ill because they’ve got Covid.

One lady I spoke to tested positive and had spent nearly an hour on the phone to a Tier 2 call handler the day before providing the details of her partner and her four underage children – who all now need to isolate for 14 days. The next day her husband receives a call with the 14-day isolation advice and she also receives four more calls from Tier 3 operatives, one for each of her children. She is given the self-isolation advice four times – for each child individually – despite having gone into it at length with the Tier 2 caller the day before. And each time she’s called – remember, this poor woman has been called five times – she has to give her children’s ages, her email address, her postcode – all of that before the track-and-tracer starts droning on with the advice she has heard multiple times already.

If someone doesn’t pick up the phone, we’re allowed to call them 15 times over two days if a child is involved, and 10 times – maximum four calls a day – for an adult contact. So this woman could get, say, eight missed calls about her husband and 16 missed calls about her children – a total of 24 missed calls in a day. People are being hounded. And you’re obliged to leave a voicemail. Not surprisingly, people’s voicemail boxes are nearly always full because me and my colleagues have been relentlessly spamming them with messages.

Why can’t the advice for a single household be done in one call? Where there are children involved and where the parent who’s tested positive is the one who’s already given all her children’s details to a Tier 2 track-and-tracer, why do they have to hear the advice over and over again for each child from a Tier 3 caller? It’s insane.

But it gets worse. Let’s say, using this mother of four as an example, that 10 days into her husband’s 14 day isolation he also tests positive. He now has to go through the same ridiculous rigmarole, listing all the people he’s been in contact with. His wife – who’s recovered by now and is no longer infectious – gets a call from a Tier 2 operative telling her she has to self-isolate for 14 days as a contact of a confirmed case and she’ll be fined £100 if she ignores this advice. And then the calls for the kids start again. Except now the goal posts have shifted and the children are being advised to isolate from the date their father tested positive. So the poor buggers have to miss another two weeks of school!

This, by the way, is wrong advice. If you’re a contact and not a confirmed case, you’re only supposed to isolate for 14 days from when the first person in your household tested positive, so in the case of these four children their isolation start dates should tally with that of their mother’s illness. Luckily, I know this and I can tell them to ignore the new date they’ve been given by the Tier 2 tracer, but most of my colleagues don’t and give them the wrong advice. Basically, the Tier 2 callers have got a date on their screen that’s been generated by ‘the system’ – 14 days from the date the most recent member of the household tested positive – and they just trot it out like automatons. The calls are being recorded and you don’t want to get into trouble with your manager for going off script so you’ve got to be pretty confident to ignore the date ‘the system’ is flashing up, even if you know it’s wrong. Nothing about ‘the system’ is joined up. It’s not a ‘system’. It’s a shit show.

I sometimes wonder whether it’s been designed this way so Matt Hancock can stand up in the House of Commons and say, ‘X number of contacts of confirmed cases were successfully reached in the last seven days’, glossing over the fact that most are duplicates or are people who’ve tested positive themselves and are being given the wrong advice.

This woman was a gold mine of stories about the staggering incompetence that characterises NHS Test and Trace, from Dido Harding on down. Most of the the stories fall into the category we journalists call, ‘You couldn’t make it up.’

For instance, she said that if a contact of a confirmed case lives alone, they’re not allowed to receive visitors, presumably because of the risk that the visitor could catch Covid from them if they’ve been unlucky enough to catch it. But if they live in a household of, say, six, the other five members of the household are allowed to come and go as they please. She recounted having to tell one elderly woman who lived alone that daily visits from her grandchild on his way home from school would have to cease, even though if they lived in the same household they could spend as much time together as they liked. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” she said. “It might as well have been designed by Lewis Carroll.”

Mainly I am struck by how patently fine everyone with the virus is. I call it the ‘Covid-cold’ because it really isn’t much worse than that for the majority of people. Some old people are still hit fairly hard but even they aren’t ending up in hospital. Is it worth f**king the economy and forcing people to stay indoors for two weeks to effectively try and stop the spread of a relatively mild flu-like illness? Let’s all crack on and get some herd immunity going!

I may be bringing you some more stories from this lady.