Pride and avarice

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the most effective way to control the spread of coronavirus is to identify individuals already infected and isolate them from the general population for the period during which they can pass on the infection.
Despite Boris Johnson’s ambitious ‘Operation Moonshot’ plan to deliver 10 million tests a day, other countries have shown that effective track and trace is far from rocket science so why has the UK has drifted so far off course in delivering one of the few effective strategies for stemming the spread of coronavirus?
Quite rightly, when the pandemic first raised its ugly head, the government identified the need to vastly expand and scale up the NHS’s capacity to control the spread of Covid-19 in this way.
But the route they chose was to outsource much of the process to private sector providers and effectively side-line local public health protection teams. Quite why this happened is unclear but cynical voices have been quick to accuse ministers of prioritising ideological agendas ahead of the most effective means of pandemic control.
While coronavirus testing in clinical settings remains largely in the hands of the NHS, community testing was handed over wholesale to private operators with a puzzling shortage of domain knowledge.
Add to the mix the appointment of Tory peer and ex-TalkTalk chief executive Dido Harding to head up the public health system and many were reeling at the apparent lack of expertise behind the single most important weapon in the UK’s anti-coronavirus arsenal.
The government has spent a truly staggering £12 billion on total provision for test and trace in England but less than 70% of contacts are being successfully identified and only a quarter of tests are done within the required 24-hour time frame.

Manifest failure
The manifest failure by those given government contracts to deliver an effective test and trace system has bought into sharp focus the potential pitfalls of public private partnerships and is in danger of inflicting significant damage to the reputation of other longstanding and successful relationships between the health service and the private sector.
If anyone is in any doubt as to the extent of private consultants’ involvement in the test and trace programme, a simple roll call of the companies currently involved should help to put the record straight. Serco, Mitie, Boots, Amazon, G4S, Sodexo, Sitel, Randox and Transunion are all on the public payroll to deliver the system.
While HealthInvestor UK has no issue with the private and public sectors joining forces to provide the best services – indeed some of the greatest benefits for patients come from such partnerships – a dogmatic belief in handing over all services to private companies in the total absence of any supporting evidence does no one any favours.
Meanwhile the noise and dissatisfaction surrounding test and trace is making the public more aware of and increasingly concerned about private sector involvement in the NHS.
The results of a recent poll by Survation published on the HuffPost UK website show that 74% want local public health teams to run the service.
Perhaps the time has come for contractors and their investors to think carefully before taking public funds to provide services which they are ill-equipped to deliver.

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