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Editorial Britain's failures on testing make relaxing lockdown dangerous

THE government is on course to miss its target of 200,000 Covid-19 tests per day by this weekend – a failure that will not do much for confidence in its new track-and-trace system.

Ministers insisting that it is our “civic duty” to co-operate with the scheme should of course be heeded, however irritating such injunctions may be given the blatant double standards exposed by the Dominic Cummings affair. An effective tracking-and-tracing system, identifying those who have come into close contact with people who have tested positive for coronavirus, is essential to ending its spread.

Unfortunately it is far from clear that an effective tracking-and-tracing system is what Britain will have. Doctors and campaigners have highlighted the government’s use of the pandemic to further extend the infestation of for-profit companies in the NHS, bypassing tendering processes not in order to deliver services itself but to hand them without scrutiny to private operators.

The catastrophic impact of privatisation on NHS supplies was exposed this month in a joint study by We Own It and the University of Greenwich – which noted that every piece of PPE equipment goes through four separate layers of profit-taking as different firms select suppliers, produce and distribute it.

The track-and-trace system looks set to be similarly botched. We learned a fortnight ago that the Tories had dismissed an offer from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) to train contact tracers. The work was instead given to Serco – a privateer whose record of botched jobs extends to having actually defrauded the government in the prisoner-tagging scandal, charging the public to tag prisoners who were dead, were not being monitored at all or were back in prison. 

The ease with which Serco continues to snap up lucrative contracts despite failing after failing will not have provided it with any incentive to up its game. Whether it has or not, CIEH director Gary McFarlane has noted that the decision to deliberately ignore the expertise of local council environmental-health workers and instead rely on staff recruited by a gaggle of privateers and given rudimentary training – perhaps for as little as one day – in contact tracing risks turning test, track and trace into a “car crash.”

Labour has rightly attacked the government for abandoning its plans for mass testing and contact tracing in March. The government attempts to explain this by saying that the sheer number of likely cases made lockdown the appropriate way to contain the pandemic. 

Yet imposing the lockdown, right (and late) as it was, was no reason to drop preparations for contact tracing: indeed, had this been rolled out earlier, we would know more about the actual infection levels of Covid-19 than we do and would be able to approach the planned relaxation of lockdown with greater confidence.

As the government’s own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies points out when warning that widely reopening schools from Monday is unsafe: “Robust testing systems are not in place.”

As Solomon Hughes notes in today’s Morning Star, workers at a number of companies which have continued to operate throughout lockdown have raised fears over the spread of coronavirus through their workplaces. Some employers are accused of keeping quiet about confirmed cases among their staff. Britain’s feeble testing record means we lack reliable data: we have conducted fewer than four million Covid-19 tests since the outbreak began, compared to the 6.5 million tests carried out in the single Chinese city of Wuhan over the last week.

In China the reopening of schools was accompanied by testing pupils and staff for Covid-19 to give them the all-clear before placing them in close contact with others. Our government seems determined to plough ahead with relaxing the lockdown with a track-and-trace system barely launched and beset by problems. This is dangerous, and workers are right to resist it.

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