Test & trace: A catalogue of broken promises

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The full re-opening of schools is reliant on an effective Covid-19 testing system. And yet we are still waiting. Jon Richards despairs at the bombast of this government and its grandiose broken promises


Gone are the days when politicians made pledges determined to carry them out, knowing that if they failed, they would have to fall on their sword. Now it seems that our leaders can say or do whatever they like and there are no consequences.

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen countless failed promises. During the early weeks, politicians made ever desperate promises about PPE supplies, while some of the biggest broken pledges have been about England’s “world class” test and trace system.

As I write, I am back in my office. On returning, I found on my desk papers from pre-lockdown – left to gather dust since March 23.

These include a series of papers from February about the importance of contact tracing in preventing infection spread and how the UK needed to step-up its system to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Public health officials identified early that countries with a robust public health system and which locked down early were quickly able to set up effective test and trace systems.

Unfortunately for the UK, public health teams have been ravaged by austerity and so in the early days of the pandemic the increased demand soon outran the capacity.

In a panic the government started making promises, threw money at private companies to increase capacity and trialled an NHS App on the Isle of Wight (which failed). In May, the prime minister said he was confident that by June 1 we would have a test and trace operation that would be “world-beating” (we didn’t).

Later in June, Mr Johnson promised that the system would be sorted and there would soon be a 24-hour turn around for all tests (that didn’t happen either).

Before the partial re-opening of schools in June, UNISON and others argued that we needed an effective test and trace system. We were told that the system would soon get up-to-speed (it didn’t).

The system continued to underperform and on July 21, health secretary Matt Hancock was grilled by Parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee, during which he was asked who was responsible for the testing system. He replied: “The government, so me as secretary of state.”

By the start of September, the PM was back making overly ambitious claims when talking about “Operation Moonshot”, which he said could see millions of Covid-19 tests a day. Those in the know have said that the technology for such rapid tests "does not, as yet, exist" and leaked government papers include a price tag for this of £100bn.

Even Tory MPs were fatigued. As one said: “Please, please, please, before we talk about the moon, can we just focus on local community testing?”

Then of course schools fully re-opened and it all went pear-shaped. The private labs can’t cope and the government does not seem keen on telling us why.

Mr Hancock (the one who is responsible, remember) blamed the public for seeking to have unnecessary tests – even though he had also previously said that anyone in doubt should take a test.

In the background, the maligned NHS testing capacity has grown, so that they now process more than half of all total capacity. And their response time is much better than the private labs, with 24-hour turnaround for more than 95 per cent of their tests.

Dido Harding, the head of the testing service, said recently: “I don’t think anybody was expecting to see the really sizeable increase in demand that we’ve seen over the course of the last few weeks.”

Apart from the fact that UNISON – and many other school organisations – warned back in May of exactly this kind of increase…

We are now told it will be sorted in a few weeks – is this true? Even if it is, by then how many bubbles will have been dispersed and sent home? How many schools closed? And how many staff and pupils will have suffered waiting an eternity for tests or test results?

It seems the secretary of state is still only interested in meeting with teacher unions and so UNISON and the other two school staff unions (GMB and Unite) have now written to him with some practical steps that he could take to help schools and staff in the short term. Maybe this time he will listen?

I can’t help thinking that if the government had approached things with more humility, less bombast and fewer grandiose promises, we could forgive them a lot more.

So, never mind a “world class” test and trace system – can we just have one that works please?


  • Jon Richards is national secretary, education at UNISON. Read his previous articles for SecEd via https://bit.ly/33KATZ0


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