Coronavirus in numbers

Covid: Fewer than a quarter with symptoms request test, study finds

‘Adherence to each stage of test, trace, and isolate is low,’ experts say

Zoe Tidman
Thursday 01 April 2021 09:32

Fewer than a quarter of people who develop coronavirus symptoms request a test, new research has suggested.

The study into adherence to the UK’s test, trace, and isolate system also found only half of those who had symptoms were fully self-isolating towards the end of January, when the latest data is from.

Experts, including from the Public Health England (PHE) behavioural science team at Porton Down in Wiltshire, found that only half of people could identify the main coronavirus symptoms, which include a cough, high temperature and loss of taste or smell.

The research - based on responses from more than 53,800 UK adults to surveys across the pandemic - said: “Adherence to each stage of test, trace, and isolate is low but improving slowly.”

In total, 37 survey waves were carried out from 2 March last year to 27 January this year, with about 2,000 participants in each wave.

Researchers found the percentage of people requesting a coronavirus test after symptoms developed was 22 per cent in the latest wave from 25 and 27 January.

The study suggested this had improved over time. When data was taken from between last May and January this year, only 18 per cent said they had requested a test after Covid-19 symptoms had developed in the past seven days.

The most common reasons for not requesting a test were thinking the symptoms were not Covid-related, symptoms had improved or were mild and not having had contact with anyone with Covid-19.

Another reason was thinking people only had to self-isolate in this case, the researchers found.

In January, 52 per cent of those with Covid-19 symptoms said they were fully self-isolating, according to the findings published in the BMJ.

This was also higher than when taken across a longer period of time, with 43 per cent adhering to rules around self-isolation across all waves of data collection.

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Men, younger people and those with young children were less likely to self-isolate, as were those from more working-class backgrounds, people experiencing greater financial hardship, and those working in key sectors.

Common reasons for not fully self-isolating included to go to the shops or work, for a medical need other than Covid-19, to care for a vulnerable person, to exercise or meet others, or because symptoms were only mild or got better.

“Our data suggest that self-reported rates of full adherence to isolating and testing are low, as are rates of recognition of the main symptoms of Covid-19,” the experts - including from King’s College London- said.

They added: “With such low rates for symptom recognition, testing, and full self-isolation, the effectiveness of the current form of the UK’s test, trace, and isolate system is limited.”

The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows that 90 per cent of those told they must self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace after being in contact with a positive Covid case did so.

Meanwhile around one in 10 respondents said they had done at least one activity that went against self-isolation requirements - which included medical reasons not involving a Covid-19 test, outdoor recreation or exercise and to go to the shops.

In March, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee said the impact of NHS Test and Trace is still unclear, despite the UK government setting aside £37bn for it over two years.

The report found the test and trace system had used up “unimaginable” amounts of taxpayers’ money and failed in its task of preventing the second and third lockdowns.

A Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said: “Since last May, NHS Test and Trace has contacted 3.2 million people who tested positive, and another 6.4 million of their contacts.

“Behind these numbers are countless lives saved and the latest ONS statistics show that when people are asked to self-isolate, the overwhelming majority do so.”

They added: “It is vital that people continue to do their bit by isolating when they are asked to. As the prevalence of coronavirus falls, our testing and tracing system becomes more important in identifying and suppressing local outbreaks while also responding rapidly to the threat of new variants.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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