Contact tracers have warned that the government’s test and trace scheme may be failing to contain the spread of coronavirus because it does not provide translation services for staff.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, contact tracers told Sky News they were missing crucial opportunities to trace the contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19, especially among migrant workers.
“This is an English-only service,” said one contact tracer, who observed that the website for people who test positive to add their own contacts is currently only available in English.
“Unless you happen to get a random match between a case or a contact and a non-English speaking call handler then you can’t proceed, and ultimately that opportunity is likely to be lost.”
Asked if translation services were available, another contact tracer said: “There is nothing. It’s not even an option on the system.”
A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson initially said translation in 130 languages was available to all contact tracers, an assertion contact tracers strongly denied, calling it “brazen” and “bizarre”.
According to official statistics from 2011, 864,000 people in England and Wales do not speak English well or at all.
One contact tracer said that of the last 10 people they had contacted “half were cases where English clearly was not their first language”.
This contact tracer said that most of these people spoke “Eastern European or South Asian languages” and were located in “the places that have been reported with factory outbreaks” – a reference to the spate of outbreaks in meat packing factories, many of which employ large numbers of migrant workers.
Guidelines given to contact tracers, and seen by Sky News, say that any cases requiring translation should be escalated to Tier 1, the term used to describe local public health teams who are not part of NHS Test and Trace.
Contact tracers working for NHS Test and Trace raised concerns that escalating cases in this way risked missing opportunities to speak to people who would otherwise be hard to contact.
Leaked messages from a Facebook group, seen by Sky News, also suggest that even this process can be unreliable.
In one message, a contact tracer asks if Tier 1 definitely has a translation service, saying: “I’ve just had a case requiring a translator in staff notes, had been called 4x previously. It has already been escalated to tier 1 but de-escalated due to no translator service?”
It is not known if this case was ever resolved, but contact tracers said this kind of de-escalation was frequent and often took several days.
A DHSC spokesperson told Sky News that it was working towards making online services available in languages other than English, adding: “Translation services are available for all contact tracers communicating with people who do not speak English.”
Asked how these services were delivered, the spokesperson did not respond.
Following this enquiry from Sky News, NHS Test and Trace appeared to have changed its approach. Leaked messages from inside a Facebook group show team leaders telling staff that they could help with translation, something they said was “completely new in just the past few hours”.
The message went on to say that “the translation service has been limited for team leader use only at the moment”.
NHS Test and Trace sources admitted that contact tracers may have to ask for translation services.
The official documentation for staff has not been updated, said one contact tracer, who added: “For me it’s not real until it’s documented, and it doesn’t exist at all for thousands of solo workers not on a Facebook group.”
The DHSC has published a number of videos on Facebook featuring contact tracers, who explain how they have been able to use their own language skills for contact tracers.
Asked about these videos over text message, a contact tracer told Sky News that they did not understand how this was possible except by chance, saying: “No one knows what languages we speak [no data collected]. Cases aren’t allocated to any specific people on any basis.”
A leaked message from the contact tracers’ Facebook group shows a team leader saying: “ALL TRANSLATION QUERIES please escalate to T1 for the time being… Call handlers must not translate themselves.”
Labour MP Taiwo Owatemi, who sits on the Health Select Committee, said: “We already know that COVID-19 has a disproportionate impact on BAME communities so the government should have planned and made sure tracers could communicate with non-English speakers.
“Ministers must now urgently prioritise building a fully effective test, trace and isolate regime led by local expertise to break the chains of transmission of this deadly virus.”
Boris Johnson promised that the test and trace service would be “world-beating” but since its launch in late May it has been plagued with difficulties, with reports of technical and data issues.
Government statistics show that more people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups are dying from coronavirus than those from white ethnic groups.
According to leaked documents from Public Health England, factors such as historic racism and social inequality may have played a part in this increased risk.