Current affairs

Testing times; a view from the Covid frontline

27 Dec 2021 | Written by Paul Phillips

I’ve been blamed for a few things in my time. Some of them were my fault, to be fair. But I am not responsible for the Covid crisis. Really, it’s not down to me.


However, according to the angry man passing by the Covid testing site I was working at the other day I am bang to rights for perpetuating the whole Covid hoax. 

‘It’s all made up,’ he bellowed, ‘you are conning us. You’re all part of a big government hoax. There is no Covid. It’s a waste of money’ 

I’ve left out some of the adjectives – most of which began with ‘f’.

I would have responded to his considered views but at the time I was dealing with a few of the 300 people who were to turn up that day to take a PCR test. 

Presumably they had all fallen for the Covid con and their symptoms were mere figments of their imaginations. 

It’s an odd job being a MTU (Mobile Testing Unit) operative, not least because of the eclectic mix of people you work with.

I’ve worked with a furloughed pilot, a corporate events organiser whose business fell off the Covid cliff, a chef whose restaurant went bust and a bunch of people who lost their jobs as High Street shops shut forever. 

Before the start of the University year there were a few students but the majority of people in the testing teams are either retired or heading that way. 

Unlike the legions of volunteers at vaccination centres, we are paid for what we do. It’s not a lot – certainly not enough for most people to live on – but for those like me it adds a little extra to the pension income. 

Many of us have worked at a senior level in big organisations and have wide experience of running things and managing people. 

We have suffered the ways of the corporate bean counters and have tutted at the management skills of those who have been fast tracked to the level of their incompetence. 

NHS Test and Trace is led by the UK Health Security Agency. It is not run by the NHS – even though we all have its logo on our fluorescent coats and name badges. 

All the parts of the Test and Trace system are farmed out to a range of private companies who share a very lucrative pie. The cost is currently running at around £37 billion and that figure is only going one way.

Some of these companies then handover the management of the people who actually do the testing work to a raft of recruitment agencies, who earn their corn through a commission for each worker. 

As a rough guide, an MTU Operative is paid £10 an hour for a 32-hour week (it varies a little depending on the agency.) The recruitment company earns around £3.50 an hour for each worker. 

There are some 500 MTU operatives in the part of the country I work in. That’s 500 x 32 x £3.50 an hour. Reach for your calculator if you wish but I can tell you now it’s a lot of money. Of course the agency has costs but not many people would sniff at the profit margin.

The way we work is quite simple. People drive to a mobile testing site having booked a PCR test.  Sometimes we operate a walk-in operation for anyone who would like a test, but mostly it’s all pre-booked.

The ‘customers’ are guided through the testing method; their tests are checked and then registered digitally. Results come through in 24-48 hours. 

When I started in June it would be fair to say that we were not over-run with customers. 60 in a day constituted a record then. It’s rarely fewer than 200 per day now and often much more than that.

So we have a system where people book a test and a MTU team is deployed to a site to cater to their needs. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for a start, the bookings and deployments do not always make sense, mainly because of failures of communication through the pyramid of organisations running Test and Trace.

Teams have been deployed to sites a couple of miles away from each other. One of those teams will spend most of the day honing thumb-twiddling skills. 

I know of one walk-in site (remember, that’s for anyone who fancies a test with no-pre booking), which counts the number of tests on the fingers of one hand – not all the fingers, either. 

The reason for that is that the walk-in site isn’t advertised because there’s no booking. There’s logic hidden deeply in that message but I wouldn’t waste time looking for it.

A team of MTU operatives, a manager and a van is still deployed though. 

Calculators at the ready again; 9 x £10 x 8, plus the costs of hourly rate of the manager and the van. Decide for yourself whether that’s value for taxpayer’s money.

While we’re at it, let’s look at another example where, to borrow a phrase from our Prime Minister, cash has been ‘spaffed against a wall.’

The company that runs the test and trace operation in my part of the world – and delegates the hiring of the MTU operatives to various recruitment agencies  – will every week come up with a new set of rules for running a testing site. It keeps them busy, I guess.

One of the most ludicrous was the edict that any operative who deals with people turning up for a test (that’s all of us, by the way) must change their PPE every time they interact with a ‘customer.’

I changed my latex gloves 40 times in 40 minutes at one site before unilaterally declaring the rule to be a nonsense. 

Those gloves went to landfill after one short wearing. That’s me, at one site, for a fraction of my working day. Imagine my 40 pairs of gloves multiplied by the number of MTU operatives around the country. 

That’s not a blue-nosed dolphin you can see over there. And the latex glove on its face is no fashion accessory.

Let’s return to our friend the passer-by and his rant about the Covid ‘con.’ 

He’s wrong of course. It is very real and currently becoming very concerning day by day.

But his comment about ‘a waste of money?’

Not completely, of course. But again, you decide whether that £37 billion and rising is really proving to be our (the taxpayers) money well spent. 

Paul Phillips works on a Covid Mobile Testing Team. He has been a journalist for over 40 years, had senior editorial roles with the BBC and Sky News and worked in many parts of the world as a consultant and skills trainer. Paul is also a university lecturer specialising in broadcast journalism and TV production.

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