Coronavirus: Test and trace system ‘rendered ineffective’ by rate of infections, government scientific advisers believe

Contact-tracing system virtually meaningless as it stands, one scientist warns

Chris Baynes
Thursday 15 October 2020 16:24
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Surging infections are feared to be overwhelming the UK’s test and trace system
Surging infections are feared to be overwhelming the UK’s test and trace system

Surging coronavirus infections are overwhelming the UK’s test and trace system and tougher lockdowns will be needed to get the virus back down to manageable levels, government scientific advisers believe.

Case numbers in many parts of the country are feared to have climbed past the point at which the system, billed by Boris Johnson as a key tool in keeping the pandemic under control, can be effective.

Test and trace recorded its worst performance to date for contact tracing last week as it creaked under the weight of surging positive Covid-19 test results.

Only 62.6 per cent of close contacts of people who tested positive in England were reached in the seven days ending 7 October, figures published on Thursday revealed.

The latest data shows 89,874 new people were confirmed to have been infected with coronavirus in England over the same week, a 64 per cent rise in positive cases on the previous seven days.

Scientists on Sage, the group advising the government’s coronavirus response, are understood to believe infection numbers have climbed so high in the worst-hit areas of the country that the test and trace system cannot cope.  

Test and trace is seen as working more effectively when Covid-19 is at lower levels and smaller outbreaks can be stopped in their tracks.

Some experts on Sage feel repeated “circuit-breaker” lockdowns will be required to allow the system to recover and believe more support should be offered to people required to self-isolate to ensure they stay home.

Sage called for a short lockdown at a meeting last month, documents which emerged this week revealed, but ministers chose not to follow the advice.

“As infections have gone up so much, test and trace is virtually meaningless as it stands because it’s capturing such a small proportion of cases but also cases are now escalating very quickly,” said Deenan Pillay, a professor of virology at University College London who sits in Independent Sage, a group of scientists set up to scrutinise the government’s coronavirus response.  

He told The Independent an urgent national circuit-breaker lockdown of at least three weeks may be needed to provide “the breathing space needed to allow test and trace to really get back on its feet”.

Health secretary Matt Hancock defended the system on Thursday, telling MPs: “Through NHS Test and Trace we’ve built up a detailed picture of where and how this virus is spreading.

“This week’s NHS test and trace statistics show the testing capacity is up, testing turnaround times are down, and the distance travelled for tests is down too.”

But NHS Providers deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said: “It’s deeply unfortunate that at this point with infections rising, admissions increasing and winter looming, there’s still clearly a long way to go until our test and trace system is fit for purpose.”

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