After difficulties in obtaining personal protective equipment and building up sufficient testing capacity, monitoring, tracing and isolation are the last major challenge for the government.
Cabinet Minister Michael Gove stressed on Sunday that the tracking and tracing system would be ready to launch across the country by the end of the month, with “just over 17,000” tracers from contact already hired.
But emails seen by the Guardian, sent over the weekend by one of the private sector companies managing the Kent-based hiring process, HR Go, said the hiring had been suspended.
“Thank you for your online application for this position. Unfortunately, earlier today, the roles were suspended. This is due to a delay in launching the “Track and Trace” app itself while the government is considering an alternative app, “said the emails.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs said that the email was “wrong and could be confusing”, and that recruitment for the online and telephone contact tracing service was continuing ” on the beat”.
Shadow Secretary of Health Jon Ashworth said, “Testing, tracking and isolating is fundamental to managing and controlling this virus and making it safe to lock down – but the government’s approach has been increasingly chaotic, with steps after steps. “
The government is fighting to maintain public confidence in the difficult second phase of crisis management after replacing the blunt message “Stay at home, save lives” with the more nebulous “Stay alert”.
Boris Johnson admitted on Sunday that he can understand the public’s frustration. He wrote in the Mail on Sunday: “I recognize that what we are asking for now is more complex than just staying at home – but it is a complex problem and we must trust the common sense of the British people. “
The digital branch of the NHS, NHSX, has developed its own coronavirus tracking application, which will store data centrally, rather than opting for an alternative from Google and Apple that operates in a decentralized manner.
If a user does not feel well with the symptoms of Covid-19, they may choose to let the application notify the NHS. They will be offered tests and an anonymous alert will inform other users of the application with whom they have spent time in the past few days.
Thousands of contact tracers, many of whom work from home, will work alongside the app, talk to victims of Covid-19 with whom they may have been in contact and give advice – for example, urging them to isolate.
Ministers want to be able to use the data collected to analyze the spread of the virus. They hope this will allow them to re-enforce lockout conditions in local areas where a new outbreak is detected – a process that Johnson described as a “punch.”
But the app works against the constraints of modern smartphones that only Google and Apple can bypass, and arrives overloaded with privacy concerns that could deter some members of the public from using it.
People who had applied for contact tracing jobs via the government’s gov.uk website were informed this weekend: “As the application (or an alternative) goes live, we will reconsider the applications already received, but be aware that we have received an unprecedented number of applications for this position and, therefore, not all suitable applicants will be able to be presented. “
Confronted by the Guardian over the claim in the email that an alternative application was being considered, a spokesperson for HR Go confirmed that he had sent the emails, but insisted, “What was said is miscommunication and wrong. We don’t know any reason why Track and Track [sic] would not continue as it should. We will contact the candidates directly to correct this once we have completed our internal investigations. “
The DHSC spokesperson said, “The NHS contact search application is not suspended and it would be completely wrong to suggest otherwise. There is no alternative application and the NHS continues to work constructively with many other organizations that are helping to develop and test the NHS Covid-19 application.
The Guardian revealed last week that the app’s advisory board was divided over whether it had the power to tell the government to drop its version and upgrade to the Apple and Google versions.
On Thursday, after a meeting, it emerged that members argued that their role on the board was limited to providing advice on ethical issues and not to engaging in a broader discussion on the issue of if the app is the right tool for the job.
Some government officials believe that the NHSX application may not survive in its current form after testing on the Isle of Wight. Software for a decentralized version of Apple and Google is expected to be released on Tuesday.
The government gave up trying to track every British case of Covid-19 in March, when the virus started spreading in the community. England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries said at the time, “There comes a point in a pandemic when it is not an appropriate response. “
But Ashworth and Secretary of Health Matt Hancock’s immediate predecessor, Jeremy Hunt, have repeatedly called for community tracing.