England’s “world beating” coronavirus test and trace service is failing to reach more than half the contacts named by infected residents in Blackburn with Darwen – where health chiefs are battling a major outbreak.
Leaked analysis obtained by The Independent shows that across northwest England, the national tracing service is reaching only 52 per cent of all close contacts, leading one senior source to say: “The contact tracing service is now part of the problem we are trying to solve, not the solution.”
The data also shows that less than half of close contacts are being reached in Oldham, St Helens, Manchester and Rochdale. The best performance for the region is in Cheshire East, where a third are still being missed.
The analysis was carried out by Professor Dominic Harrison, the public health director of Blackburn with Darwen borough council.
In the report, sent around the region earlier today, Professor Harrison said: “I have to advise you that I think that the structure, funding, operation and performance of the current test and trace system – in particular the contact tracing system element, is now contributing to the increased risks of Covid-19 in Blackburn with Darwen.”
He warned: “With larger numbers of contacts per case and only just over half of the contact tracing of confirmed cases completed, we are at significant risk of losing control of the capacity to manage this risk due to the failure of the contact tracing.”
He said the borough had the highest percentage of contacts per infected person in the country, meaning “a system failure to trace contacts quickly and comprehensively in this borough amplifies the risk of continued community transmission”.
The professor added: “I need an urgent response in order to mobilise the local capacity asap.”
His findings have left government and Public Health England officials scrambling this weekend to put in place new local contact tracing to pursue those not reached by the national system. If they fail, the outbreak could worsen and lead to a local lockdown like that seen in Leicester.
Boris Johnson had promised a “world beating” test and trace service in May and the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has been clear that 80 per cent of contacts must be reached within 48 hours to prevent the virus from spreading.
Last week, Blackburn with Darwen saw a spike in infections, with cases rising to 47 per 100,000 people. The council asked residents to limit visitors to their homes and wear face masks in enclosed spaces.
The latest data published on Saturday shows the northwest region has the highest overall rate of infection with 600 cases per 100,000 people.
Professor Harrison’s analysis has exposed a weakness in the national centralised testing and tracing service which was set up and awarded to private companies including Serco alongside the centralised testing in the Lighthouse Laboratories.
Tracers will call a contact 10 times, but if they don’t get through there is little else they can do. Local councils do not have patient level contact details so cannot do their own contact tracing by knocking on doors in affected areas.
Professor Harrison’s report said the success rate of contact tracing via pillar 1 of the government’s strategy, using local NHS and Public Health England labs, was 100 per cent.
Promoting local resources, he said: “We can mobilise a local solution by asking our neighbourhood teams to pick up the contact tracing at local level where local knowledge would increase the success of tracing of these contacts. We feel we would be able to do this both faster and more comprehensively and with more cultural insight.”
He added the problem was replicated in other areas: “It looks like many of the local authorities with high confirmed cases per 100,000 also have amongst the lowest rates of completed contact traces. The implications are obvious.”
In total, there were 799 close contacts identified for the council area in the latest data. “This is the highest number of contacts per case in the northwest,” he said. He added that only 44 per cent had been reached while 56 per cent had not been, making that “the lowest in the northwest”.
He concluded: “I will be doing all I can over the next few days to escalate this issue and seek urgent and immediate solutions – but with the vast majority of contract tracing capacity and investment now placed with remote private sector commissioned service providers, we will struggle to provide the local solution I have outlined.”
Professor Harrison told The Independent he wouldn’t discuss the leaked report and said only that the council was “aware of the low level of ‘contact tracing completions’,” adding: “We are working over this weekend with the national test and trace system and PHE to find immediate, more localised solutions to the issue.”
The prime minister took to Twitter on Saturday to proclaim the government’s approach was working.
He said efforts to control Covid-19 “through targeted, local action” were working and being led by the test and trace service. Next week, the government will unveil new powers to be able to close down businesses and order people to stay at home.
Labour shadow health and social care secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said: “This is shocking and a far cry from the world beating testing system Boris Johnson promised.
“What we have instead is an ad hoc jumble of different private companies, ministers dragging their feet on giving councils the specific data they need and a failure to contact cases – all for an eye watering £10bn of taxpayer’s money. It’s failures like this that has led to Leicester having to go into lockdown and a highly respected director of public health in Blackburn raising the alarm.”
The Liberal Democrats said the prime minister was not being straight with the public about the test and trace system.
Health spokesperson Munira Wilson said: "What is happening in Blackburn and Darwen drives a coach and horses through the prime minister's dubious claims to be able to control the virus through targeted, local action.
"This is too serious to be playing politics. From recklessly changing current guidance against the advice of his experts to this, Boris Johnson clearly isn't being straight with the public.
"The only way to allay fears and keep people safe is with a comprehensive strategy to test, trace and isolate every case of coronavirus."
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: "NHS Test and Trace has already helped test and isolate more than 180,000 cases - helping us control the spread of the virus, prevent a second wave and save lives.
“The service is working closely with local authorities across England to help manage local outbreaks and data is shared daily.
“We urge anyone with symptoms to get tested for coronavirus as quickly as possible, self-isolate, and you should not leave home unless it is to get tested. The service relies on everyone playing their part – please book a test if you have symptoms, self-isolate and help us trace anyone you’ve been in contact with.”
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