A health minister has downplayed the axing of 6,000 coronavirus contact tracers – insisting that the system for track and trace was ‘adapting’ and is still ‘world-beating’.
Edward Argar, who himself previously worked at Serco – one of two firms hired by the government to run its contact tracing programme, has deflected claims the government was firing tracers because its system was failing.
Dubbed ‘world-beating’ by prime minister Boris Johnson, NHS Test and Trace was set up in June to reach people who had come into contact with a person who had coronavirus in order to get them to self-isolate.
But the programme has been plagued with problems and has consistently failed to reach a large number of cases.
Just last week, reports emerged of workers being paid to ‘have barbecues and quizzes’ while some had not made a single call since the scheme launched three months ago.
In the latest sign of change, the Department for Health and Social Care, which is responsible for the system, has vowed to cut 6,000 staff and funnel cash towards local track-and-trace initiatives.
Appearing on talkRADIO with Julia Hartley-Brewer, Argar denied the government was scrapping the scheme in its current format.
‘We always said this system was flexible and would adapt and now we’re seeing a move here towards a hybrid model,’ he insisted.
‘250,000 people have been traced through there so that is 250,000 links and chains and infections broken’.
Rather, the former Serco head of public affairs for the UK and Europe said, the government had ‘realised’ that it wanted to ‘further build’ on the relationships with local authorities to tackle the virus.
‘You get the capacity and the scale of the national effort coupled with that local community knowledge to help reach hard-to-reach people. This is about both bits of the system working hand in hand to make it work.’
An unimpressed Hartley-Brewer interrupted: ‘That’s a great bit of spin and I give you 10 out of 10 for that Mr Argar however last Thursday the latest figures showed that only 46% of close contacts were alerted. That was a drop on the previous week, 51%, well below the 68% mark which we know is the bare minimum for doing it.
‘The reality is that you’re changing it because the current system doesn’t work.
‘Don’t you think that my listeners and people all around the country would be more understanding if you, or the prime minister, said: ‘Turns out the local authorities or public health organisations were right and that the centralised system doesn’t really work”.
She added: ‘Wouldn’t that be more honest?’
Argar denied the accusations, saying that the system was ‘adapting’.
‘What we are seeking from local lockdowns that, as well as the volume we get from the national approach, we are also going to be using more of the local approach.
‘It’s about adapting to what works.’
He then argued that the English system was still among one of the best in the world because it had contacted more people than in other countries and singled out New Zealand as an example.
New Zealand had a higher percentage rate of reaching Covid contacts than the English but has only had to contact 360 people.
The Pacific nation has a population of 4.8 million people while the English has 66.65 million. The country recently recorded its first coronavirus cases in 102 days and has been lauded by the international community for its handling of the outbreak which has resulted in only 22 deaths and 1,570 confirmed cases.