Track and trace is no laughing matter, so don’t turn it into a farce | Zoe Williams

Has there ever been a more unsettling sight than Matt Hancock, laughing? Nominally, it was because Kay Burley had asked him why track and trace was being rolled out so fast, when it didn’t appear to be ready. One minute we were calling him too slow, he wheezed. And the next we were calling him too fast! HAHAHAHA. Oh, my sides. 

Whatever it was coursing through his noisy face, it definitely wasn’t mirth. He looked as if he had been taught to laugh by the goats that had unaccountably raised him, and was trying it out for the first time. But that isn’t the question. “Will track and trace be ready?” isn’t even the question, since given any opportunity to outsource a complex and vital process to a monolithic and incompetent services company, the government will take it, and we have to make our peace with that. 

The question is: will any of us obey it? Someone calls up, tells you you have had contact with an infected person, but won’t tell you who it was. It is no different from the system with STIs, they say, except it is really different, because you could normally at least narrow down who had given you gonorrhoea, or if you couldn’t, you could take your quarantine on the chin. You can get a test, but even if it is negative, you still have to stay in isolation. You might think you have had coronavirus, you might even have tested positive for it in the past but, building in the uncertainties around immunity, that makes no difference.

Simple thought-experiments, such as “What would Dominic Cummings do?”, yield a hard: “Bugger that for a game of soldiers.” It takes a very particular set of attributes to be able to ask others, in a convincing and compelling way, to do their duty. It would be boring to list them all when it is plain that no one in government has any of them. 

Probably the only way this is salvageable is for the cabinet to lead by example: all declare themselves quarantined, following track-and-trace instructions, constantly, one fortnight rolling into the next. Maybe get someone else, such as the opposition, to step in and govern for a bit. It’s quite an ask, but, in the national interest, worth it. 

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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