My week with Covid – and a glimpse into our farcical Test and Trace system

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Altrincham Today editor David Prior tested positive for coronavirus last week. Here he provides a personal account of his experiences so far…

Nine days ago I woke up with a temperature. In a not-too-distant past, that would have meant nothing more complicated than a couple of paracetamol and a suggestion to take things easy for the day.

But in Covid times, nothing is straightforward.

With a wife who works for the NHS and several children of school age, I knew I had to establish pretty quickly whether this was just a temperature, or whether it was a dreaded ‘symptom’.

So I ventured online to book a test locally. Despite a series of questions that relieved me of my phone number, email address and postcode, I was soon informed that due to the service being very busy, there were no tests available in my area. Or anyone else’s area, it seemed.

So I rang the dedicated coronavirus number, 119, which the government website recommends you to call “if you have problems using the online service”.

An automated message duly suggested I should try and book my test online. Brilliant.

So, with both booking options exhausted, I decided to take matters into my own hands and go direct to a test centre.

The only way to access a test was to actually turn up without a booking

There was one fewer than four miles away in Partington, at the former Moss View Community School.

On a bright Saturday morning I parked outside and was promptly informed by a man in a mask and white protective outfit that I would have to pre-book online. After protesting my case – and perhaps sensing the futility of his stance given there was virtually nobody else around – the man relented and I was waved through. There followed a highly efficient and friendly testing service; I was in and out within 10 minutes, armed with a code and a promise that I’d be notified of the result within 48 hours. What a great system, I thought – but why on earth did the system seem so intent on preventing me from using it?

After two days spent isolating in our cellar, the result arrived on Monday morning: Positive.

“Try not to worry,” the text and email counselled, but after seven months of writing about this blasted virus for Altrincham Today, it was more than a little discombobulating to suddenly become a ‘case’. What’s more, I was starting to feel dreadful: a worsening migraine, an aching body, a general feeling of fever and a rapidly disappearing sense of smell. My default setting is usually located somewhere between ‘hectic’ and ‘chaos’, but for once my energy levels were sapped to such an extent that the only activity I seemed capable of was repeated viewings of Hamilton on Disney+.

The text that confirmed the diagnosis

Aside from the isolation and the sudden deprivation of any kind of physical contact with wife or children, one of the most difficult things to accept with a Covid diagnosis is the realisation that you must now massively intrude on other people’s lives.

My wife normally runs a maternity ward that cares for dozens of babies in the first few, critical hours of life; suddenly, thanks to my diagnosis, she was out of action for two weeks. My kids are still of the age where school is just fantastically good fun; now, they were tearily adjusting to the idea that they wouldn’t been seeing their beloved friends and teachers for a whole 15 sleeps.

Meanwhile, the few work colleagues I’d shared an office with in the days leading up to my test were on their way home to isolate. In short, despite having diligently followed all hand-washing and social-distancing guidelines these past few months, there’s a sharp feeling of guilt that you’re responsible for a whole bucketload of upheaval.

Anyway, last week passed, undoubtedly one of the more surreal few days of my life. Despite us having had no contact at all since my symptoms started, my wife developed a headache and a cough and, yes, returned a positive test. With both of us infected, you’re left with no choice but to hope that all those stories of the limited impact of coronavirus on children – and our youngest, who’s just turned one, is still breastfeeding – are accurate. It’s a horrible situation to be in, to be honest.

I haven’t mentioned NHS Test and Trace yet – but there’s a good reason for that. You’re supposed to receive a call from a contact tracer within a day or two of a positive test, but until 7pm last evening – almost a full week since I was texted my result – I had heard nothing.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson first promised Britain would have a “world-beating” test and trace system in May

Remember this is the so-billed “world-beating” system upon which our route to a more normal life is meant to hang. It’s supposed to ensure that all recent contacts of an individual with a positive diagnosis are contacted and required to self-isolate, thereby stopping the potential for virus spread.

I’d already downloaded the NHS Covid-19 app to my phone prior to my symptoms showing and, once the test result had come through, had already undertaken my own contact tracing service with anyone I remembered having come into contact with.

But if my experiences are anything to go by, seven months since the first case on British soil, we still do not have a system worth the name.

As it’s transpired today, it seems my case must be one of the 16,000 coronavirus cases that went unreported in England, thereby escaping the Test and Trace system. So perhaps my experience can be filed under ‘anomaly’; but after so many months and so many deaths, why on earth is the system still susceptible to what seems to have been human cock-up?

Since that eventual call last evening, I have today been bombarded with calls. Unbelievably, three calls came from separate contact tracers at EXACTLY the same time: 8:20 this morning. I know this because I spoke to one of the tracers while the other two left separate voicemails explaining that they were trying to reach me. They seemed entirely oblivious to the fact that three separate tracers were calling the same individual.

Remarkably, exactly the same thing happened shortly after 10.20 this morning. While I was on the phone to somebody else, two tracers called me at exactly the same time and left separate messages. This is not information they should need though: I had already provided the very information they require through that prolonged call with a tracer last evening. Farce upon farce.

All in all, even just taking my case as an example, this is a system that seems utterly devoid of organisation and efficiency.

It’s a system that goes out of its way to try and prevent you from accessing a test in the first place.

It’s a system that can just let thousands slip through the net, so leaving many more thousands of contacts untraced.

And it’s a system that can’t even display the level of coordination required to ensure that a case isn’t telephoned by three tracers simultaneously.

With cases in Trafford up to almost 200 per 100,000 population, it’s a situation we should all be hugely concerned about.

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