Why Matt Hancock’s Test And Trace Plan May Come Down To Money, Not Tech

"Civic duty" won’t put money in the pockets of workers forced to quarantine at home.
Baroness Dido Harding and Matt Hancock.
Baroness Dido Harding and Matt Hancock.

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The Great British cake off

Covid-19? There’s an app for that! Except there isn’t. Despite Matt Hancock’s puppyish enthusiasm for launching an NHS test and trace phone app by the middle of May, today even he seemed to give up the ghost. Asked when it would appear, he said “we’ll bring it in when it’s right to do so”. No timeframe, no target, no hailing the marvels of tech.

Earlier, NHS Test and Trace chief Dido Harding was just as vague, saying only that the app would appear “in time”. She told us hacks that it wasn’t really central to the wider system of online, phone and in person contact tracing. The app was “the cherry on the cake. not the cake itself”. “And what you’re seeing today is the baking of the cake is going reasonably well.”

But is this vital government policy half-baked, or at least two-thirds cooked? The new statistics for its first week of operation showed that only 67% of those who tested positive for coronavirus gave details of their ‘close contacts’ who could also have the virus. The numbers were better for those contacts who were then reached by NHS staff (85%) and told to self-isolate for 14 days.

Harding repeatedly admitted that the system was far from perfect. “We’ve got a lot more to do to improve the speed of the entire service,” she said. “We’re not at the gold standard yet” of isolating all contacts within 48 hours of someone requesting a test. The message was that the system was iterative, a work in progress, but a worthy start.

Despite his app appearing stranded on the Isle of Wight, Hancock was, characteristically, much more upbeat. “I think you’ll see from these figures why we are confident that it will be world class,” he trilled.

That confidence wasn’t shared by some (including Independent Sage, who said the presentation was ‘deeply misleading’), and even the health secretary’s language seemed a significant notch down from Boris Johnson’s own boasts last month. ‘World class’ is not the same as ‘world beating’, as promised by the PM some 22 days ago.

Hancock was undeterred by sceptics of the move out of lockdown, declaring “we are working through the plan and the plan is working” in getting the Covid numbers down low enough to make changes to people’s daily lives. Yet he did appear to resurrect a direct linkage between the NHS Test and Trace system and government ‘easements’. “The more successful the test and trace scheme is, the more we’ll safely be able to relieve other lockdown measures,” he said.

That informal conditionality was perhaps why there was a sternness in his tone. Asked if the scheme could be made mandatory, he said “we’re not ruling it out”. There was a hint of a threat that unless individuals observe the 2m social distancing at work they would be tracked down. Hancock also had what sounded like a warning not a plea: “I would go so far as to say that participation with NHS Test and Trace is your civic duty.” This felt like the old “this is not a request, it is an instruction” version of Hancock last seen in early lockdown.

But civic duty cuts both ways. The citizen may agree to some sacrifice as long as they don’t personally lose out. Remember that phrase, uttered by the PM and Rishi Sunak, that “no one will penalised for doing the right thing” in this pandemic? Well, when member of the public Andy asked what extra support there would be for those who self-isolate under test-and-trace, Hancock failed to promise an extra penny.

Remember that statutory sick pay at the moment is still £95 a week, compared to the real living wage of £325 a week. Why not create a new test-and-trace sick pay rate to provide an incentive for those who do the right thing? It would cover tens of thousands of people at most, not millions, so the cost need not be huge.

Being told to stay at home for two weeks is fine if you are in a well paid office job you can do at home. But for those who have no choice but to travel in to work, it can be a big hit to their income. And remember, you could be ordered multiple times to quarantine if you are named as a contact. If the government’s response to these workers is ‘let them eat cake’, ministers shouldn’t be surprised if the system starts to break down.

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Thursday Cheat Sheet

In the first week of the NHS Test and Trace programme, 5,407 (67%) of more than 8,000 people who tested positive for Covid-19 responded by giving up their close contacts. They provided further 31,000 contacts and nearly 27,000 of them (85%) agreed to self-isolate.

No.10 made clear that there were no plans to reimpose a nationwide school closure programme should there be a ‘second wave’ of the virus in the autumn or winter. Any flare ups will only be dealt with locally.

After a series of HuffPost articles on complaints of alleged anti-black racism within Labour, Keir Starmer unveiled plans for an expanded minority ethnic leadership programme, an audit into the diversity of party staff and training in unconscious bias.‌

300 tower blocks are still covered in the flammable material similar to that on Grenfell Tower, three years after the disaster, the government revealed. A pledge to remove all the cladding by this month was missed.‌

Chris Grayling’s failed privatisation of the probation service was finally killed off when justice secretary Robert Buckland confirmed it would be brought back under state control.‌

Labour claimed planning decisions were “auctioned off” by the Conservatives in the controversy over ex-media tycoon Richard Desmond’s links to housing secretary Robert Jenrick. A junior minister was sent to answer claims in the Commons on his behalf.

Under-30s have been hardest hit by a fall in their income during lockdown as more of their money (58%) goes on essentials like food and housing than older people (43%), new ONS data showed.

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