Coronavirus: Inside test-and-trace – how the ‘world beater’ went wrong

By Nick Triggle, Rachel Schraer and Phil Kemp
BBC News

Publishedduration38 minutes agoimage copyrightGetty Images

Just half of close contacts given to England's NHS Test and Trace are being reached in some areas, a BBC investigation has found.

Exactly six months after Boris Johnson promised a "world beating" contact tracing system, it can be shown that the network is failing in areas with some of the highest infection rates.

The research also found no-one from NHS labs was at a key government meeting with private firms about testing.

The government has yet to comment.

As ministers struggle to get the test-and-trace system on track, BBC News spoke to key government figures, scientists and health officials who were involved from the very start to establish what went wrong with the system – and, crucially, whether the system can be fixed to hold the virus in check until vaccines come to the rescue. The investigation found a system that is failing in the areas where it is needed the most and is still undermined by the legacy of decisions they were made at the outset.

Further revelations include:

  • Private contractors overpromised what they could do, with one saying it would build 200 testing machines that hadn't, at the time, even made it to prototype
  • The move to more local contact tracing by councils was being undermined by IT problems, leading to a reliance on spreadsheets and delays getting contact details.

The name NHS Test and Trace sounds like it is one whole service that is part of the NHS. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is a complex web of different programmes that have been bolted together rapidly. Private firms play a key role in terms of both testing and tracing, which has meant some of the local expertise available in the NHS, universities and councils has been bypassed.

The seeds for this were sown back on 17 March before the first lockdown was announced when a group of companies met with government to discuss testing.

That meeting included now-key players Randox and ThermoFisher, two health-technology firms. But no representatives speaking for the existing NHS labs sector were involved, says Allan Wilson, president of the Institute of Biomedical Science. "There wasn't any consultation with the service itself."

Very quickly the direction of travel became clear – the government turned to its commercial partners to set up large, centralised labs that sat outside any existing healthcare or research structures.

There is now a network of six large mega-labs – known as Lighthouse labs – that process the bulk of the tests across the UK. Testing sites, where the swabs are taken, are run by the auditors, Deloitte.

A similar decision was made with contact tracing – a national army of 18,000 contact tracers taken on by outsourcing company Serco, while Sitel runs the contact centre. This element just covers England. The rest of the UK has its own arrangements.

"These contracts were signed and sealed in record time – there weren't even penalty clauses inserted for performance in many," says someone who was close to the decision-making at the time. "The government was in a panic – we were in the middle of lockdown and they were under pressure from all angles. It is not the environment in which the best decisions are made."

And so it proved.

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