No more bluster and bluff: Test and trace has to work

Chris Hopson profile picture

24 September 2020

Chris Hopson
Chief Executive
NHS Providers


In seven short months, testing and tracing for coronavirus has become as important a public service as treating heart attacks, catching criminals and fighting fires. It’s key to people going back to work, school and university safely. It’s a central weapon in our fight to defeat this dreadful virus. It’s a vital way to save lives.

It’s a central weapon in our fight to defeat this dreadful virus. It’s a vital way to save lives.

Chris Hopson    Chief Executive

So, for all our sakes, our new national test and trace system has to work. It would be easy to pretend that this is just a task for NHS Test and Trace. But, as in lockdown, we all have a role to play. Getting a test if we’ve got symptoms. Providing contacts quickly if the test proves positive. Fully self isolating if we’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive. Doing all this quickly, given that we can pass the virus on to our friends and family without knowing we’ve got it.

But we can’t do any of this without NHS Test and Trace doing its job. Making it easy to book and take a test. Providing the right number of tests in the right places, close to where we live and work. Processing the tests rapidly and accurately so the right result comes back the next day. Mobilising effectively to deal with local outbreaks.

Today’s launch of the new Test and Trace App is a great example of what’s needed. NHS Test and Trace have to provide us with an app that will actually work. But its effectiveness will be significantly determined by how many of us actually download and use it.

The whole NHS Test and Trace service has been built from scratch, in an incredible hurry. So we should have some sympathy and understanding for those who have had to create a brand new public service, covering 66 million people, across nearly 100,000 square miles, in less than four months. It was always going to be difficult. We should also acknowledge that, from a standing start, we are now testing more people per head than France, Spain and Germany.

It was always going to be difficult. We should also acknowledge that, from a standing start, we are now testing more people per head than France, Spain and Germany.

Chris Hopson    Chief Executive

But some government decisions haven’t helped. They took far too long to establish NHS Test and Trace. They got side-tracked in late March and April chasing an April 30 capacity target and then trying to persuade us they’d met it.

And they’ve made a major mistake in refusing to acknowledge that building a fit for purpose service would take time. The prime minister’s statement that we would have a world class service by the end of June was deeply unhelpful. Given the need to build public trust and confidence in this new service, it was like shooting NHS Test and Trace in the foot just as it was leaving the starting blocks.

We’ve also had too much government bombast, bluster and bluff for too long. The bombast of pointing to the total number of tests undertaken over the last seven months because it’s a big sounding number. The bluster of dismissing thousands of people’s recent experience of being unable to get a test as “carping”. The bluff of pretending that all will be well in a 10 million tests a day 'moonshot' next year.

The same applies to the new app being launched today. Five months ago it was proclaimed as the key cornerstone of test and trace. Now it’s just one element of support in a human led system.

We need honesty, openness and appropriate detail. Less chopping and changing. We need to know how big and widespread the current problems are; what’s being done to fix them and how long that will take. An apology for the fact that a vital public service isn’t working as it should be wouldn’t go amiss either.

If NHS Test and Trace is under pressure now, it’s likely to face even greater pressures this winter.

Chris Hopson    Chief Executive

If NHS Test and Trace is under pressure now, it’s likely to face even greater pressures this winter. We’ll all, understandably, want the reassurance of a test if we have a cold, flu or a bug with coronavirus-like symptoms. NHS Test and Trace therefore has a major task on its hand to expand capacity, expand the number of testing sites, expand the number of tests being processed for the next day, and expand its ability to deal with local outbreaks. Whilst there are top level plans in place to do this, we need more detail and the NHS trusts that we represent want to know what contribution they will need to make.

NHS Test and Trace is what we’ve got. It has to succeed. We all need to play our part. If public confidence in this vital new service is lost, we will all reap the consequences. But we need the government to build that confidence by acknowledging reality, problems as well as progress, and stop trying to pretend all is well when it patently isn’t.

A slimmed down version of this blog first appeared in the Daily Mirror newspaper.

About the author

Chris Hopson profile picture

Chris Hopson
Chief Executive
@ChrisCEOHopson

Chris Hopson is the chief executive of NHS Providers. He joined in September 2012 after a career in politics, commercial television and the civil service. Read more

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