Is it time to de-fetishise ‘Test & Trace’?

In an earlier article in my informal Covid-19 diary, I expressed why I though ‘Test & Trace’ was unlikely to work in the West, It seems to me that you need either a government with a totalitarian grip or a population with a culture of compliance, preferably both, in order for a successful system. In the West, with our emphasis on privacy, personal freedom, and a bolshy attitude to authority it was never going to work.

I was criticised at the time for apparently turning a blind eye to Western outliers like Germany and The Netherlands where, critics confidently asserted, T&T was “working”, unlike our “shambolic” attempt to implement a system.

Yesterday we learned that, according to a German government minister the virus was “out of control” as their Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a new national lockdown,

News today is that The Netherlands has too announced a new lockdown of at least 5 weeks.

Rewind a few months, and Reuters were reporting that “Until recently, the Netherlands was so comfortable with its test-and-trace plan for a second wave of coronavirus infections that it thought there was no need to make people wear face masks.” But in October there was a surge that made them rethink this confidence, culminating now with a national lockdown.

Clearly when PM Boris Johnson declared the UK would build a “world beating system” he was foolishly holding himself hostage to fortune. Because T&T is simply not as effective as those still demanding it pretend it is, such as London mayor Sadiq Khan.

Yesterday the BBC ran the story of one nurse’s experience of working as a tracer. Her experience was corroborated by other tracers. In short, they’re dealing with daily abuse from entitled members of the public ignoring their instructions to self-isolate. In one shocking example, a person told her they could not take a follow-up call “because they were in Starbucks”, where they sat, knowing they were infected. In other cases, they are accused of being phone-scammers, their calls are directed to voicemail and their number blocked.

How was it ever going to work in this environment?

It also needs to be said that one excuse people give is bolstered by the stream of cynical negativity in our media and by politicians from the Tory Right to the Labour opposition who wish to use this crisis to unseat Boris Johnson for whatever reason they have. It is absolutely their right to attempt to unseat the PM, but they should think twice about how the erosion in public confidence over the pandemic response may end up costing lives. By all means, continue fighting over Brexit, Climate Change, or whatever else, but don’t make Covid-19 a proxy for these battles. It is too serious and life and sanity is at stake.

Now, I can already here some people saying “But we must hold the government to account for this shambolic response!” Really? Where has it not been “shambolic”? All of our European neighbours have fallen off the perch they were put on by those eager to put the UK down.

In Belgium for example, an article in The Brussels Times attempts to explain why Belgium doesn’t need to follow The Netherlands into lockdown (and may have to close their border), but this is followed by an article about how a visiting Santa infected 118 care home residents in Antwerp. You can imagine the headlines if that happened in the UK.

None of this is to blame the Germans, the Dutch or the Belgians. Like ours, their governments are doing the best they can with the resources they have. There are mistakes, missteps, and bad management, as you would expect anywhere. What we are dealing with is extraordinary and unprecedented, at least in our lifetimes. We have to stop looking for scapegoats, we have to stop pretending that this soundbite or that meme is the obvious answer because it isn’t. There needs to be more goodwill and good faith, and most of all, the politics needs to be taken out of this crisis. Or we will all pay the price.

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