Britain has made an important discovery in its fight against coronavirus. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced that Britain is now planning to start contact tracing.
This plan will be taken up with some urgency, he announced in Parliament on Thursday. Hancock said he is hopeful that the plan can be implemented as early as within “a matter of weeks” and 18,000 workers will be hired for the same.
The aim is that in the first stages of the implementation, some weeks from now, contact tracing will be initiated for all workers in essential services and their families.
Besides, health workers, this category would include police, social care workers, teachers, transport workers, supermarket and food production workers, and journalists.
Hancock’s announcement came after countries such as South Korea, New Zealand, India and Germany found significant success in countering the spread of coronavirus through contact tracing.
However, there is an essential difference with Britain’s plan with the country rediscovering a different kind of wheel. The plan is for contact tracing by the little army of 18,000 to begin its work “when we get the level of transmission down,” Hancock said.
This means that while other countries launched contact tracing at breakneck speed to contain the spread of the virus, Britain will begin when this wave of the spread of COVID-19 has ended.
This time the government would appear to be serious after a botched attempt earlier. The government agency, Public Health England, had a go at this when Britain had reported 599 coronavirus positive cases.
It gave up very soon after it began on March 12 because this was found too much to do.
Britain’s health secretary is now explaining to the country what contact tracing is. He told Parliament the move is intended at finding out people who have been in touch with those infected with coronavirus.
Those who have been infected, he added, will then be isolated to spread further spread of the infection.
This crisis has seen Britain follow a policy - and a policy it seems – of doing too little too late. Someone will have to explain to an eventual inquiry that Britain would have begun contact tracing with any level of seriousness only in the late May of 2020.
And then, with a plan for no more than 18,000 to be engaged for this. At that stage, many scientists are now saying, Britain will need 1,00,000 or more for the job, even if by then there will be fewer people left to trace, going by the current death rate.
The day Hancock spoke, South Korea had recorded 10,708 cases and 240 deaths. Britain had 1,38,078 cases, with 18,738 deaths reported through hospitalisation.
The numbers of those who have died in care homes and at homes has been estimated anywhere between 10 percent and 50 percent above that figure.
Hancock said contact tracing could become effective once the lockdown is lifted.
“The fewer new cases, the more effective test, track and trace are as a way of keeping the disease down, and therefore, more of the social distancing measures can be lifted,” he said.
That logic Hancock now offers has been familiar around the world for some time. But his announcement now suggests that what Britain may begin to do down the line could now be too late for that time.
The country is currently seeing about 5,000 new cases a day – and this is under a lockdown. It does not include all who call the national helpline with symptoms to report who are advised to stay home and keep an eye on themselves.
All the well-reasoned fears, from both scientists and government, suggest that the number of infections is likely to rise when a lockdown is eased. That would make contract tracing near impossible with a staff of 18,000, assuming that all of them are in place and on the job late next month.
Contact tracing is a painstaking process. For every positive case, there will be many to trace, and potentially for each of them many more. Tracing for each person can take days.
When you get 18,000 confirmed new cases surfacing every few days, who all could 18,000 trace? The present staff for this in Britain is 290.
The countries that succeeded with contact tracing started very early. When they were on the job, Hancock dismissed demands for a similar exercise in the UK.
Britain held a meeting of its crisis committee on January 24 that Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not attend to discuss its response to the fast spreading coronavirus.
Hancock told reporters after the meeting that the danger to Britain was “low”. A later meeting of the committee in the middle of February upgraded that threat to “moderate”.
Such responses from the leader in charge of Britain’s health during such times led a government official to remark that Hancock is “not having a good crisis.” The far greater difficulty is that Britain is not having a good crisis.