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UK's key Covid-19 infection tracking survey awash with complaints

By Adam Vaughan

Participants in the Covid-19 Infection Tracking Survey will be tested even if they have no symptoms

Bloomberg via Getty Images

The UK's flagship survey tracking Covid-19 infections has been inundated with complaints. Volunteers called it an "absolute mess", "disappointing and frustrating" and a "total incompetence".

Hundreds of people who took part in the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Covid-19 infection survey took to Twitter last month to express their frustration over alleged multiple issues from IQVIA, a US multinational that is making house calls organized for tests to register to be collected.

Households will receive a letter asking them to sign up in order to sign up for the survey. The survey team is expected to contact you within seven days to schedule an appointment for an employee to visit, monitor, and collect completed tests. After the first appointment, volunteers have the opportunity to make follow-up appointments to continue taking the survey.

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However, complaints suggest that this is not going smoothly. Reported issues include not calling back people to book appointments, failing to show up when appointments are booked, busy hotlines, unanswered emails and tweets, and staff having poor advice on how volunteers should wipe their nose and throat.

The picture painted by the complaints could provide an explanation for a growing proportion of invited households that did not complete tests for the survey, New Scientist reported last week.

Pete Liggins in Prestwich says the first IQVIA employee to visit him did not offer advice on how to do self-smear tests. It wasn't until he watched a video online after completing the test that he realized how to do it properly. Nobody called to make a follow-up appointment, and they couldn't reach a hotline that was always manned. "If not done properly, all of the sacrifices we are asked to make can be in vain," he says.

Simon Broxham in London was unable to make a second appointment despite calling IQVIA several times. “I was just frustrated with the whole exercise. All three of us (in his household) wanted to help and we want to take the survey because we think it's a good thing. I was amazed that we couldn't go on, ”he says.

"It seems an absolute mess," says Izzy Aron in London. She said she had received no advice on how to conduct the tests and instructions on where to find a unique household code for the forms were unclear.

Another unsolicited volunteer in Suffolk said he had waited three weeks to be called and when a visit was finally booked for last Saturday no one showed up. "I would describe it as disappointing and frustrating," they said. Many people have described such no-shows on Twitter, some report that they occur several times.

IQVIA appears to be aware of the issues and tweeted on October 14th that the "service is now having some delays in booking appointments".

IQVIA employees told more than one household that school-age children put a “key to work”. Some study participants will be asked to provide a bloody sample, and IQVIA says this can only be done in the morning, which limits sampling to Saturdays for such households. "We are happy to participate because we appreciate the importance of the study, but so far we have been surprised and disappointed with the difficulties and wasted time," says the Suffolk volunteer.

The survey team says the issues people face are being addressed. IQVIA did not respond to requests for comment, despite an ONS spokesman speaking to New Scientist on behalf of both organizations: “The rapid and successful expansion of the survey over the past few weeks has been a major operational challenge. We are continuously improving our processes and will address any issues raised by respondents. "

"The ONS Infection Survey has clearly addressed the problem positively," says Sheila Bird of the University of Cambridge. "Rapid expansions often encounter such difficulties, namely a drop in performance due to an overloaded workforce."

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