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  • Writer's pictureAlastair Blair

ONS and Oxford University - how not to run a Covid Survey...

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

To be fair, the Scottish Government is also culpable, but I didn't have room for that in the headline. These three organisations all had their names on the envelope when it arrived several weekends ago, so I opened it, rather suspecting it would be what it indeed turned out to be, namely an invitation (you have been selected at random, etc.) to participate in the country's mad dash to understand this coronavirus thingy that is so besetting us just now.

Further perusal revealed that we - that is everyone over the age of two who lives in our house, apart from Benjy the dog - were being asked to help the ONS/Oxford/SG find out the levels of Covid infection in the community at large. By way of incentive, they were offering us money to do so. All we had to do was sign up for at least one test, but ideally one a week for a month followed one a month for a year. For the first test, everyone in the house who took part would get £50, followed by a mere £25 each for each subsequent test. My wife and I discussed it and decided we should do our civic duty. I'll be honest, the money helped.

I duly phoned up to register and the nice lady who took our details explained that there were so many people signing up that it would probably be about three weeks before we heard from anyone. To my surprise, a couple of days later we got a call telling us that a swab-bearing person would arrive on the 9th of October. She duly did and was very nice, although clearly she had been given minimal training as she had to phone her manager to get advice. However, we did the tests (not very pleasant but I kept thinking of the £50) and were told that we would get our results in writing if they were negative but that we would probably get a text or a call if they were positive. I asked why, given that they had our mobile numbers and email addresses, they wouldn't simply text or email us the results in either event, but apparently that was too difficult.

Around ten days passed and we still had had neither results or a follow-up visit. Thinking that it was important that they stuck to the weekly cycle promised, I called the number on the paperwork, using our landline. A recorded message asked me to hold as they were very busy. After a bit, a new message said I could still hold or I could press 2 and they would call me back "in a couple of days." I held. Another recorded message said that they were going to hang up if I didn't press 2, so I did. A disembodied voice then read back the landline number, but omitted the last digit. There was then the option to give another number, so I pressed the relevant button (2 again if memory serves) and keyed in my mobile number when requested. The disembodied voice then read out our landline number again, once more sans the last digit. I gave up.

Then I thought, well, I could do with the next lot of cash, so I'll try calling again from my mobile and get them to call back. This time, it worked. That was about 15 days ago and I'm still waiting for a call back.

However, not to worry, because another nice lady called a few days later. It was a Sunday and she said she could come and see us that day. We agreed, she came along, did the tests and that was fine. At this point we still hadn't had the results of the first test, but she told us that "they are very busy" so we thought, "well, surely they would have been in touch if we had the virus."

As part of each visit, the swab-bearing person asks a number of questions. For the most part, these are all sensible, such as "how many people have you been in close contact with in the last seven days." But on this second visit, a new question was asked; specifically, "have you had a Covid vaccination?" When I pointed out that this seemed a bit unlikely, given that one hasn't (as far as we know) been signed-off yet, she said that she too thought the question a bit strange.

We had now had two tests, at least ten days apart. Moreover, we'd had an email with our first instillment of dosh! Huzzah - we were £100 up, not bad for having to gag a bit while you swipe a swab around your tonsils and then stick it up each nostril. We presumed that we'd then have to wait at least a week before our third test. Not a bit of it. Two days later, on Tuesday evening, we got a call. The lady said that she was due to give us a test that week. We pointed out we'd just been tested. She said that was weird as we were down to get tested on Thursdays, but not to worry as she'd come and test us tomorrow. We didn't point out that tomorrow was Wednesday.

She came along and we did the tests. Again we were asked if we'd had a vaccination. I queried this and was told that apparently, "there are some snake-oil merchants offering fake vaccinations." I wondered to myself why the previous testing person didn't mention this, or indeed the media, but I steeled myself and thought of the £25.

Then the results of our first test came in the post. It had taken about 15 days. To make it more exciting, they fold the letter just at the words, "The results of your test are..." and you have to turn it over to find out if you are positive or negative. We were, fortunately, negative. If we had been positive though, the good news is that we'd already had the two week quarantine period, albeit we didn't actually quarantine.

Now the wait was on to see if we'd get tested a week later or whether we'd have to wait another 10 days. In the meantime, the results of our second test arrived, 10 days after we'd had it. Negative again, I'm glad to say.

Today (27th October) I answered the landline at about 6.15 pm Another lady, who asked for my wife. I explained that she was taking part in an online exercise class and couldn't come to the phone. She said she was calling her about the Covid tests and that she was going to be able to come to see my wife tomorrow. I said, "that's fine, you can talk to me too then because I'm also taking the test." She was apologetic, telling me that she was only down to test my wife, not me. I pointed out that this was mad: why was she coming from Glasgow to Ayrshire just to test my wife and not me? She admitted she had all my details, but she was only down to test my wife. She agreed this was mad. I asked if she had a manager, which she confirmed, so I suggest that she call him or her and ask to get this sorted. Apparently, that wasn't possible. It was "computer says no" although she did sympathise with me and agreed that it was all a bit daft, but "you might get a call from someone else tonight to set up a test for you." She said it was "teething problems" - a refrain she echoed when she called my wife later to arrange her swab test.

At the time of writing (nearly 9.00 pm) I have not had a call. To say that this reflects badly on the programme is a bit of an understatement, but it does help me understand why the government (all governments in the UK) are making an arse of this. If this is in any way representative of the rest of the government programmes of test and trace, etc. then heaven help us. Watch this space....

29th October - Update

Still no call for my next test. However, I did discover, courtesy of a client/friend, another story from the mad world of Covid testing/surveying that will cause your knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine (or porcupine if you prefer).

Said friend's son is at university in the east for Scotland. He has signed up to be a tester for the ONS scheme. He had to give his home address as part of the signing -up process, but be made it clear that he is currently living in St Andrews. He was then sent a list of people he had to go and test. They were in Helensburgh, over 100 miles away. He called his supervisor who said it would get sorted. The next day, he was asked to go and test people in Dunoon, three hours away (including a ferry journey). They have now, apparently, got it right and he's testing people within reasonable distances of St Andrews.

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