JANET STREET-PORTER: Good luck with Test and Trace

Matt Hancock says that Test, Track and Trace – the latest Government ‘solution’ for easing lockdown and allowing our lives to return to a version of normal – relies on goodwill and our desire to do our best for the community and ‘our’ NHS.

Mr Hancock and Boris Johnson are not coercing us into co-operating, well, not just yet. Offering up every detail of our private lives total strangers is being portrayed as a responsible citizen’s duty. But if you disagree – could fines and lock-UP rather than lock-DOWN be waiting around the corner?

Unveiled this week, Track, Test and Trace works like this – anyone with Covid-19 symptoms must self-isolate for a week, take a test as soon as possible and await the results – which could take up to three days. Everyone in your home must stay indoors too during this time. If the test is positive, you remain in lockdown for 14 days, and then phase two starts.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock speaks at the Downing Street press conference yesterday

Matt’s team of contact tracers call up and attempt to draw up a list of everyone you might have spent more than 15 minutes with or inadvertently got closer than two metres to. These contacts will be telephoned and emailed and ordered to self-isolate, and go for a test to see if they have caught the virus.

According to Mr Hancock, all the personal information gathered will be stored online securely (yes, on behalf of the same NHS who have experienced endless technological issues over the past decade, and whose local surgeries operate using technology from the stone age) and we should not worry because our privacy is in safe hands.

The Government is using a life-threatening virus as an excuse to authorise a huge level of intrusion into our personal lives.

Something that was never thought necessary, by the way, during the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s.

Now, with smartphones and the internet, attitudes to privacy has changed. The UK has more CCTV cameras than any other country in Europe. We are under surveillance in public spaces and on all our major roads. Our phones monitor our movements and even ‘suggest’ things we might like to do or buy.

Now, this already-eroded notion of privacy is entering a new phase as the Government plans to investigate our movements, our liaisons, our shopping and exercising habits, using 25,000 people recruited and trained at very short notice, with no previous skills to collect all this information. And I wonder how well vetted they were by their third-party private employers,

Groups of sunseekers pack the seafront at Southend-on-Sea in Essex yesterday

Groups of sunseekers pack the seafront at Southend-on-Sea in Essex yesterday

Given that the project is in the hands of former Talk Talk boss Dido Harding (did you ever try to get an answer from their helplines?), I suspect it represents a mission statement rather than a concrete reality.

Track and Trace is hugely ambitious, given the faulty memories of most of my fellow citizens. Since lockdown we have lost all track of time, as one day merges into another, an endless round of bickering about who is cooking, what’s in the fridge, who drank the last bottle of rose and why won’t the dog eat the cheap chews from Morrisons. We have no diaries, no routine, very day is more or less the same.

Track and Trace might be a logical step to contain and restrict the spread of covid 19 and limit the chances of a second wave of infection, but in reality, given the British public’s ability to lie and fudge the truth, it’s probably doomed to failure.

Calculating a list of everyone you’ve met over the past week is like Morse and Lewis trying to assemble witnesses after yet another sadistic late night murder on the Oxford towpath.

Given that workers on the London Underground routinely rub elbows with total strangers during the rush hour each morning even now and every time I visit my local supermarket at least two workers (usually young men) are chatting side by side as they stock up the bananas and bagged salad, the chances of constructing a newly identified patient’s contacts and social interactions sounds like something a professor in a white coat dreamt up in a very clean and orderly lab.

A UK Government diagram explaining how the NHS Test and Trace system will work

A UK Government diagram explaining how the NHS Test and Trace system will work

The only way that contact tracing will work is via technology, and (as usual) Matt Hancock’s much-publicised Track and Trace App is a long way from being ready.

Remember when it was unveiled as the Next Big Thing back at the start of May? We were told that the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight were going to be used as guinea pigs and be offered the chance to download the app, which stores information on your phone and uses bluetooth technology to let other users know if you test positive for the virus and have been in close contact with them.

The app was supposed to be unveiled on June 1 – but is nowhere near to being reliable. Over 52,000 people might have downloaded it, but it’s thought that a great many do not live on the Isle of Wight, which compromises the findings. It’s thought a new area might have to be tested before the app is unveiled for general use. The app uses our postcodes to identify ‘hot spots’ which could be locked down locally.

The problem with any app is that it relies on consumers being patient, understanding how it works and not being bothered that the NHS (ie the Government) is clocking your whereabouts. These contact tracing apps have been used widely in the Far East. In Singapore, over 800,000 people have downloaded Trace Together since March 20.

A Covid-19 drive-through test centre at Twickenham in West London lies empty today

A Covid-19 drive-through test centre at Twickenham in West London lies empty today

But then Singapore is a country which regularly fines people hundreds of pounds for spitting or littering.

It’s been successful in countries where authoritarian governments intrude far more on their citizen’s lives, where the state issues orders (as in China) and 99 per cent of the population willingly comply.

If contact tracing was going to work, why did Matt Hancock abandon it on March 12 at the start of the pandemic?

Last weekend, thousands of sunbathers on the beach at Bournemouth, lines of walkers snaking down the Dorset cliffs at Durdle Door and fights between drunken youths on the beach in Kent, all add up to one big truth. In those images, there will be dozens of people who have the virus – coming into contact with hundreds of total strangers as they ate their sandwiches, slapped on their sun tan cream and frolicked about in the waves.

There lies your answer, Mr Hancock. Contact tracing is too late, and threatening jail sentences if we don’t toe the line, is just puerile posturing. Of course some people will support the scheme. But when the sun shines the number of ‘responsible’ citizens willing to share their address books with an eager young ‘tracer’ in a call centre will magically diminish.

Especially when one in five people know they have no job to go back to. They might as well enjoy the Government handouts and the sunshine while it lasts.

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