Gimson, Gimson, Gimson…and Gimson. My Coronavirus experience, fifty calls from test and trace – and what I learnt.

6 Feb

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I can’t spend the rest of the morning talking about this idiotic mistake.”

Generally speaking, I try not to be rude to people who ring me on official business. They have a living to earn, and cannot be held responsible for the scripts which they are required to read out, before they get to the point, if any, of their call.

But I was feeling a bit under the weather with Covid-19, and had by now received about 50 of these calls from NHS Test and Trace in the space of two or three days.

None of the callers was able to do anything about an error which had occurred. The Test and Trace system was under the impression that I was three different people, and had therefore conferred three different identities on me.

This problem had arisen because three different people, all of whom had tested positive for Covid, had all reported being in contact with me.

That we had met was not surprising, as they were all called Gimson, and were living in the same house as me.

There were several other clues that I might be only one person. I had only one name, postal address, email address, mobile phone number and NHS number.

Moreover, I too had tested positive for Covid, a result which was presumably in some official data bank, with at least some of my personal details attached to it.

None of this counted for anything with the Test and Trace people. They had not been told I had tested positive, and were not much interested when I mentioned this, or when I added that I had already received at least as much information as I needed about what I should now do, including not leaving the house for 14 days from the date of my test.

Test and Trace had not merely created three new identities for me, each consisting of an unmemorable combination of figures and letters, but had also conferred on me three different dates for the end of my 14-day period of self-isolation, and at frequent intervals would ring me up to check I knew I was on day 13, or whenever it might be.

None of these calls was short. They could not be, for the preliminary stuff about patient confidentiality, websites where I would be able to find further information, the use of calls for training purposes, heaven knows what other stuff, always took quite a bit of time.

I would then explain that there was, in fact, only one of me. Quite a few of the callers undertook to report this fact, but nothing ever seemed to come of their efforts.

All this happened last October, and I only mention it now because the editor, after threatening me with the task of composing a fourth profile of Liz Truss, suddenly decided that what this site really needed was its first ever first-hand account from a Covid sufferer.

The editor is always right. For it occurs to me that my experience, derisory though it was, illustrates several difficulties in writing the history of the pandemic as it affected this country.

How to do justice to the almost unbelievable inefficiency and wastefulness of the centralised Test and Trace system which was set up?

And how to capture the insignificance of the illness as it affected people like me? I only had a test because one of my children, a medical student, had been working in a hospital, lost her sense of smell, and tested positive for Covid.

But for that, I would not myself have had a test, for my only symptom was several days of extreme tiredness, during which I took to my bed, where I from time to time I ate delicious meals brought to me by members of the family who had already recovered.

Coverage of the pandemic has rightly concentrated on those who died, or suffered severe illness. I have every sympathy with journalists and historians who write about it in this way, but as so often, it is not quite the whole story.

I was well enough to reflect how bloody tiresome the telephone calls from Test and Trace would be if one were seriously ill, though in justice to the callers, I should add that their script included, in its later stages, questions about how I was feeling and whether I needed help.

I was also well enough to feel this as a national humiliation. The Government had somehow managed to set up a system which struck the public as completely impersonal, out of touch with local conditions and unable to react in a commonsense way when its own deficiencies were pointed out.

The rigidity of the script was a sign that it did not trust its own staff. The only call of this kind I was pleased to receive was one from my own GP, who rang to inquire whether I was all right.

What a contrast with the vaccination programme. I am only 62, so have not yet been telephoned to be told my turn has come, but I know that before long I will be.

And all of us know people who have already been telephoned, and have received, almost immediately afterwards, their jabs, and speak with gladness of the whole experience.

National humiliation has given way to national pride. We find ourselves doing something well. People who know how to develop and produce vaccines, and then at local level to administer them, are being trusted to do so.

Katy Balls has described in this week’s Spectator some of the reasons why the vaccine programme has worked.

The pressure of time was an advantage, for it provided an overwhelming motive to find and engage the best people, including Kate Bingham, and the best providers, including Oxford AstraZeneca. No time was wasted trying to get them to cut costs. They were provided with all possible support, and trusted to show in an amazingly short period of time what they could do.

So much of the modern British state has been built on the cheap, and it shows. We see false economy after false economy: things which have to be done all over again because they were not done properly the first time.

The bane of the public sector has been the attempt to do things on the cheap. Either do things properly, or don’t do them at all.

The problem with Test and Trace cannot be said to be lack of money: there was a flood of money, but whether it was directed to to the best people and providers is much more doubtful.

By last autumn, after a slow start when many existing resources were left idle, the Test side was showing signs of improvement.

On the Trace side of things, I suspect much of the money was handed to firms which know how to run large, centralised call centres, where the working assumption is that cheapness takes priority over quality.

Local knowledge, of the kind that directors of public health are expected to accumulate, is regarded as an expensive irrelevance, and the unqualified staff making the calls are ordered to stick to the limited menu of options on the script rather than exercise anything which might be described as professional judgement.

The paradox of this approach is that it did not come cheap: it meant making 50 calls to a 62-year-old who could almost immediately have been classified, by a professional caller, as in no need of help at all.

The wonderful success so far of the vaccination programme has put a gleam in our eye. Why, we think, can this success not be reproduced in other fields?

I would warn that it is only likely to be reproduced if ministers and officials concentrate on seeking out the best, not the cheapest, people in any given field.