Berkhamsted is a relatively affluent area, with its affluent inhabitants rarely experiencing the negative, alongside the positive consequences of a Conservative Government. This trend was momentarily bucked on Monday night, as I and my friends reaped the rewards of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, but were forced to avoid the local Wetherspoons for drinks due to claims circulating on Facebook of a surge in Covid cases there. Government incompetence had finally arrived in Berkhamsted.
These reports were confirmed by Hertfordshire County Council on August 25th, that stated there are a “small number of positive COVID-19 cases in the Tring area”. But we were foolish to worry about such a small number, since our Prime Minister had promised a “world beating” track and trace system by June. Such a system would isolate those infected, prevent the need for local lock-downs, and have us prepared for a second wave in Winter, so we could have safely gone for those drinks. Except, the Prime Minister is a liar, we are implementing local lock-downs, and Winter is looking bleak. And tragically, we could not go to Spoons.
The failing contact tracing system is just one part of the symphony of satire that is this Government’s performance, with the U-turn on mask-wearing in schools the latest verse to be added. I am sure even Keir Starmer is bored of saying the words ‘government incompetence’ by now, but there is a source to track and trace’s failure, and it is deeply political. The over-centralisation of power and resources, and then the offloading of responsibility to the private sector, is how this administration likes to operate. And it is why we are still so vulnerable to the virus spreading. This failure stems from an ideologically driven impulse to put private sector interests (the ability to make money) above everything from efficiency to competency. And it is costing us our health and our money.
For example, the much hyped UK-made track and trace app was dumped back in June for the superior Apple and Android collaboration, despite the latter presenting as the more sensible option from the outset. Trials for the new app using the Apple/Android approach reportedly began on August 13th, so the Prime Minister is only two or three months late on his promise of a “world beating” app, wasting nearly £12 million in the process. In comparison, Ireland’s app cost £773,000 following the Android/Iphone method of decentralized data, which bypasses the privacy issue of Government holding civilian data centrally, and is performing relatively well.
Due to the absence of an app, the UK’s track and trace system has been entirely manual thus far, with SERCO, a giant outsourcing firm, awarded a £108 million contract to take on the task from the Government. This cost rose by £300 million when the contract was renewed on August 23rd, despite their 10,000 strong workforce only reaching an average of 2.4 people per day. Local councils are having to take it upon themselves to create their own local track and trace systems due to the absence of a functioning national system and growing Covid infections. Blackburn was an early outrider in this local approach and reached 90% of close contacts, highlighting the value of experienced local government over the private sector, as well as the failure of the Government to negotiate value-for-money contracts which force private firms to perform.
The lack of an app and an efficient, joined up contact tracing system would be bad enough on its own. But the series of lies, U-turns, and empty promises from this Prime Minister has shredded any trust that people had in this Government, making people less likely to isolate if asked to. It is this peculiar British arrogance that has made every sensible step to save lives a debate about individual liberty, undermining the entire collective public health effort in the process.
It is encouraging to see NHS Track and Trace responding to the evidence by offering a new integrated national-local system to councils, where callers can contact close contacts of infected individuals, while local teams can follow up positive Covid cases in person. However, councils are strapped for cash following a decade of Conservative cuts, so this new system will only work as far as resources will stretch. Concurrently, individuals can only isolate if they are financially stable, hence why Andy Burnham is calling for self-isolation to be treated like jury duty, whereby an individual still receives their pay while self-isolating.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister and this Government always seem to come round to the right policy at the wrong time. Or they will announce the right policy, but fail to implement it comprehensively. While Covid-19 has not been the great leveller some claimed it would be, it has the potential to impose on the people of Berkahmsted, in the form of a local lock-down, the same level of incompetence and neglect that the Conservatives usually reserve for the least well off. Let us hope that, through this lived experience, Conservative incompetence can eventually be held to account.
By Oliver Storey