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UK’s vital covid-19 infection tracking survey deluged by complaints

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Participants in the covid-19 infection tracking survey are tested even if they have no symptoms

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The UK’s flagship covid-19 infection tracking survey has been deluged by complaints, with volunteers calling it an “absolute shambles”,  “disappointing and frustrating” and an “utter incompetence“.

Hundreds of people taking part in the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Covid-19 Infection Survey have taken to Twitter in the past month to register their frustration at alleged multiple problems by IQVIA, a US multinational that organises the household visits for tests to be collected.

Households receive a letter inviting them to call to register for the survey, and the survey team is meant to contact them within seven days to book an appointment for a worker to visit, supervise and collect completed tests. After the first appointment, volunteers are given the option of having follow-up appointments to continue taking part in the survey.

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But complaints suggest this isn’t happening smoothly. Reported issues include not calling people back to book appointments, no-shows when appointments have been booked, constantly busy helplines, unanswered emails and tweets, and workers offering poor guidance on how volunteers should swab their nose and throat.

The picture painted by the complaints could offer one explanation for a growing share of invited households failing to complete any tests for the survey, as New Scientist reported last week.

Pete Liggins in Prestwich says the first IQVIA worker to visit him didn’t offer any advice on how to do self-swabbing tests, and it was only when he watched a video online after completing the test that he realised how to do it properly. No one called to book a follow-up appointment, and he was unable to get through to a helpline which was constantly busy. “If it’s not being carried out properly then all the sacrifices we’re being asked to make could be for nothing,” he says.

Simon Broxham in London has also been unable to arrange a second appointment, despite calling IQVIA several times. “I was just frustrated by the whole exercise. All three of us [in his household] wanted to help and we want to be part of the survey because we believe it’s a good thing. I was astonished by the fact we can’t continue,” he says.

“It seems an absolute shambles,” says Izzy Aron in London. She says she was given no advice on how to do the tests, and instructions on where to find a unique household code required for the forms were unclear.

Another volunteer in Suffolk, who didn’t want to be named, says they waited three weeks to be called, and when a visit was finally booked for last Saturday, no one turned up. “I’d describe it as disappointing and frustrating,” they said. Many people have described such no-shows on Twitter, with some reporting it happening multiple times.

IQVIA appears aware of the problems, tweeting on 14 October that the “service is now experiencing some delays in booking appointments”.

More than one household has been told by IQVIA workers that having school age children puts a “spanner in the works”. Some participants in the study are asked to give a blood sample, and IQVIA says this can only happen in the morning, limiting the sampling to Saturdays for such households. “We are happy to take part because we appreciate the importance of the study, but so far we have been surprised and disappointed by the difficulties and the wasted time,” says the Suffolk volunteer.

The survey team says the problems people are facing will be addressed. IQVIA didn’t respond to requests for comment, though an ONS spokesperson spoke to New Scientist on behalf of both organisations: “The rapid and successful expansion of the survey in recent weeks has been a huge operational challenge. We are continually improving our processes and will address all of the issues raised by survey respondents.”

“Clearly, ONS Infection Survey has engaged positively with the difficulties,” says Sheila Bird at the University of Cambridge. “Rapid expansions often encounter such difficulties, namely a tail-off in performance by an over-stretched workforce.”

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