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Coronavirus: Northern Ireland disease control chief fears test, track and trace system could end up 'a car crash'


Warning: Gary McFarlane

Warning: Gary McFarlane

Warning: Gary McFarlane

The test, track and trace plan to tame coronavirus and release the lockdown will be "a car crash" as currently designed, a leader in disease control from Northern Ireland has warned in a blistering attack on the Government.

Ministers are recruiting low-skilled private staff to carry out complex work and ignoring vital local experts, while relying on an unproven smartphone app, insisted the director of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH).

Gary McFarlane revealed the Government had shunned an offer from CIEH to help train the planned 18,000 contact tracers, turning instead to Serco and other outsourcing giants.

Staff from the private firm will provide the bulk of 15,000 call handlers, while only a small number of local council environmental health workers - already skilled in tracing victims after outbreaks of salmonella and Legionnaires' disease - will be used.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

Mr McFarlane condemned the "centralised command-and-control" as doomed to fail, warning: "We must absolutely have local intelligence on the ground."

He said only local recruits would know if possible Covid-19 cases were being traced back to buildings with tightly-packed flats, for example, and have the "investigative skills" to carry out enquiries.

He added: "I'm concerned that, if the system is not well designed with a very clear purpose identified at the outset, it could be a car crash. Until we have a properly robust process of closing this infection down when it raises its head again, we run the risk of ending up in the same position as when we imposed the lockdown, if not worse."

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has declined to answer questions about the talks with Serco and, it is believed, other contractors such as G4S. Their staff are expected to be given only about one day's training in contact tracing.

Mr McFarlane said his organisation's members will only form part of just 3,000 higher-skilled staff to contact the "first link in the chain", while the 15,000 call handlers try to trace everyone else.

A DHSC spokesperson said: "We are working at pace to recruit 18,000 staff to support enhanced contact tracing, and all staff will receive training and support appropriate for the role they are given. The NHS Covid-19 app is a key part of our wider strategy to keep people safe. Testing has shown the NHS app works, and the public can be confident in its use."

Belfast Telegraph

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