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‘Test and Trace’ Neither Tested Nor Traced Tens of Millions of Hospitality Check-Ins

Astonishing revelations from a leaked report show that data that could have provided insight into COVID-19’s spread in hospitality was never harnessed

Smoking Goat’s menu and safety notice in the window of the restaurant — one of London’s best Thai restaurants’ safety precautions during the covid-19 pandemic Michaël Protin/Eater London

Friday 5 March, 3:35 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect news that spending on Test and Trace is set to increase from £22 billion to £37 billion, with an additional £15 billion allocated in Rishi Sunak’s 2021 Budget.

An astonishing leaked report on the government’s Test and Trace system and app shows that hundreds of millions of check-ins at restaurants, pubs, and hairdressers were never used to build a picture of the spread of COVID-19. The failure of the system, which has cost £22 billion at the time of writing and is now set to top £37 billion, left “thousands of people” at risk of being infected unnecessarily, according to Sky News.

The reports’ conclusions leave gaping holes in not just the government’s public health strategy for hospitality, but the long-held belief in the industry that it is being scapegoated because there is “no data” tying hospitality to transmission and/or infection. It suggests that the reason there is no data is that the system failed to provide it.

Jut last week, after the reopening plan was announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, U.K. Hospitality, the principal trade body for restaurants and pubs, said: “[The PM] says that the reopening schedule is driven by data, yet all the data points to hospitality being relatively safe and linked to only a tiny number of cases [...] Over the past year, the Government has repeatedly miscalculated the risks posed by hospitality.”

The £40 million contact tracing app, introduced in October, was designed to alert diners and workers that they were at risk of infection from COVID-19. In its early stages, the extremely small number of venue alerts — just one, in its first fortnight, — were believed to show that venues weren’t a place at risk of spreading the virus. This report, which says that “capacity issues at a local level” led to the alert system not being used, suggests that in reality people just weren’t being told about possible risks. Restaurants, pubs, bars, and cafes remain legally obliged to display a QR code, as in the picture above.

Having maintained that hospitality venues are overwhelmingly “covid-secure” throughout the crisis, U.K. Hospitality said today that the report was “incredibly frustrating.” Chief executive Kate Nicholls said:

Our teams worked really hard to capture that data on the understanding that it was going to be used should there be problems. To hear that it wasn’t used, and in fact we had further restrictions without really any clear evidence that there was a problem with hospitality, is a major cause for concern.

Several leading hospitality figures have used that “further restrictions without really any clear evidence that there was a problem with hospitality” argument throughout; Greater Manchester’s night time economy adviser Sacha Lord is so fond of it that he is challenging the reopening “roadmap” in the High Court on its basis. But the revelation that data from hospitality venues was not used means that it is not the case that a lack of data meant low cases; it means that a lack of data means a vacuum in the understanding of how the virus has been spreading. Public Health England’s use of Acute Respiratory Infection (ARI) data to show minimal cases tied to hospitality venues has been repeatedly debunked.

Moreover, the systemic failures could leave restaurants and pubs facing legal action over data protection breaches. The lack of staffing and/or systems management at Test and Trace led confused health officials to tell restaurants to contact customers directly, when that job was supposed to be done by the testers and tracers. Some restaurants found themselves feeling they had no choice but to this, in the absence of further guidance from the system.

As the government enjoys a vaccine roll-out bounce, Boris Johnson unfurls a “cautious but irreversible roadmap,” and Rishi Sunak sets out a Budget purportedly designed to get businesses through to summer’s promised land, news that its system designed to prevent infection in fact likely contributed to it is a stark reminder of its pattern of mismanagement.