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Test and trace programme ‘hit by more problems’ on day two

Contact tracers say they are still encountering technical difficulties and other problems, including delayed pay, on the second day of the track and trace scheme.

The government’s coronavirus programme launched on Thursday but was immediately hit by IT problems.

NHS workers in the scheme reported being unable to log into the new website, with staff saying they received a message saying a “critical incident” has been reported with the system designed to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Fiona, not her real name, is a semi-retired GP nurse from Yorkshire and is now working as a tier two contact tracer. She was one of a number of tracers who told Sky News there were problems logging on during the launch day.

Fiona was hit by more problems trying to log on at 8am on Thursday morning, with an error message saying she was unable to connect to the site.

Once she had logged in, she found she had no cases assigned to her.

When she called the helpline she said there was a recorded message saying “we are aware of some technical issues and are working hard…” before she gave up and sought out the online chat support.

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She was eventually able to get help after another long wait by trying again on the phone, telling Sky News: “I don’t think the chat is working.”

She’s been speaking to another contact tracer experiencing the same problems.

Fiona said: “I feel frustrated.

“The other contact tracer says she is close to giving up. We are here as nurses to use our skills to help and advise the public and try to beat out the fire of this pandemic. That’s what we do best. We are not IT specialists.

An employee works at the Stabilitech laboratory in Burgess Hill south east England, on May 15, 2020 where scientists are trying to develop an oral vaccine for the COVID-19 illness. - The scientists at Stabilitech are one of the teams attempting to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Ingested in a capsule into the gut, Stabilitech's potential oral vaccine aims to prompt an immune response in mucosal cells in the respiratory system and elsewhere in the body. The firm believes that will be more effecti
Test and trace system launches in England

“Most of us seem to be fairly senior clinicians. There are so many skills and public money being wasted”.

She added: “They’ve recruited all these people and there’s not enough work, I don’t think it will get busy until the app is rolled out.

“It tells you that launching this early was purely to try and dominate the news.”

The tracer said she can see there are hundreds of contact tracer shifts available, commenting that, given there are no cases assigned to her, “I could book every day if I was that inclined and get money for sitting painting my nails!”

Screenshots show there are 143 “available shifts” today and 81 tomorrow.

Despite the contact tracer having no cases assigned, a number of shifts were available for other tracers to book paid work
Image: Despite the contact tracer having no cases assigned, a number of shifts were available for other tracers to book paid work

One area of progress is that she now has been provided a number to talk to the team leaders but still has not been assigned a specific one for her.

Another issue that contact tracers have told Sky News about is delayed pay.

Fiona told Sky News: “I’ve finally been paid for my training shifts but they currently owe me for five shifts.

“The timesheets say they are ‘not authorised’, although I was told I would be paid.”

Fiona added later in the afternoon she had not been given a case all day.

A second contact tracer that Sky News has spoken to said this issue of pay appears to be widespread and is a hot topic in the forum where they are able to speak.

The tracer, who does not wish to be identified, said “most conversations” in the chat are people complaining to the moderators they’ve not been paid, or been paid incorrectly.

“Many in our chat group have not been paid,” she said, suggesting she has seen up to 20 people say they’ve had problems with payment – including many who started earlier from 14 May.

People are “very frustrated”, she said.

Another tracer who spoke about pay problems also said: “We received a message last night saying confidentiality was required to ensure the success of the programme – which sounds a bit like if you speak out, you are responsible for the failure of the programme. Which is so wrong.”

Workers are paid on Fridays with payslips available from Thursdays.

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A Department of Health spokesperson told Sky News: “Any member of staff with concerns about salary payment should raise those with their line manager.”

On Thursday they talked down issues with the website.

“The system has not crashed,” the department said. “Anyone in the country can log on and book a test if they have symptoms and we have tracers logged on to do their vital work to help stop the spread of coronavirus and save lives.

“As with all large scale operations of this kind, some staff did initially encounter issues logging on to their systems and these are rapidly being resolved.”

Doubts in the scheme have been cited by Sheffield City Council, which has called for schools in its district not to open on 1 June, as requested by the government.

Councillor Abtisam Mohamed, cabinet member for education and skills, said: “We have been advised by the Sheffield director of public health, Greg Fell, who has reviewed the local position and he does not feel assured that the recently announced ‘test and trace’ programme will be sufficiently well established and robust enough to be in place for 1 June.

“He has advised that the test and trace system should be in place and working effectively for 14 days before schools and nurseries begin increasing their numbers.”

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