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UK Covid Test and Trace system records worst ever week

Number of close contacts of infected people reached through system fell to lowest weekly percentage since Test and Trace began

Kate Ng
Thursday 15 October 2020 15:39 BST
Matt Hancock claims test-and-trace system is the envy of the world

NHS Test and Trace has recorded its worst ever week for contact tracing, new figures reveal.

Only 62.6 per cent of close contacts of people who tested positive for the virus in England were reached through the system in the week ending 7 October.

This is the lowest weekly percentage since Test and Trace began, and is down from 69.5 per cent in the previous week, data show.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said: “As non-complex cases have a higher proportion of contacts who are unable to be reached, this has contributed to the reduction in the overall percentage of contacts who were reached and asked to self-isolate since Test and Trace launched, from 91.1 per cent to 62.6 per cent in the latest week.”

For cases handled by local health protection teams, 97.7 per cent of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate in the week to 7 October.

But for cases handled either online or by call centres, only 57.6 per cent of close contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate.

The beleaguered Test and Trace has come under fire repeatedly, with MPs condemning it as a “failing” system.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth criticised the system and questioned Matt Hancock about reports that Boston Consulting Group executives are being paid over large amounts of money “to run a service that is only getting worse”.

He said: “Today, new figures show just 62 per cent of contacts reached, that’s the equivalent to 81,000 people not reached circulating in society — even though they’ve been exposed to the virus. This is another record low.

“And yesterday we learnt that consultants working on Test and Trace are being paid over £6,000 a day to run this failing service. in a single week, this Government is paying these senior consultants more than they pay an experienced nurse in a year.

Labour also called on the government to ditch outsourcing giant Serco from the £12bn operation.

According to the data from DHSC, 89,874 new Covid-19 infections were recorded in England in the week to 7 October, marking a 64 per cent rise in positive cases compared to the previous seven days. It is the highest weekly number since the system launched at the end of May.

There was a slight week-on-week improvement in turnaround times for test results. Around 32.6 per cent of people who tested for coronavirus in England in that period at a regional site, local site or mobile testing unit received their result within 24 hours.

This is up from 27.4 per cent in the previous week.

The health secretary defended the system, telling MPs on Thursday: “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 that it was “deeply unfortunate” that the Test and Trace system is still not “fit for purpose”, even as the UK faces a second wave of coronavirus and winter is on its way.

Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute at the University of Oxford, the surge in the number of cases was proof the system “has not succeeded”.

He said the number of cases cited by DHSC is an “underestimate”, as data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that testing misses a “significant number of infected people”, and only 74 per cent of those who test positive (67,511) are reached through Test and Trace.

On average, each infected person identifies three close contacts, two of which the live with, he said, adding: "We have no idea if this is accurate or not, since no effort has been made to find out.”

Of the identified contacts, the system only reaches around two-thirds of them, he said. On top of that, the system is still too slow, reaching only about 60 per cent of close contacts within 24 hours. There is also little evidence that isolation is effective.

“So for 100 people who are infected, only 50 are tested positive, only 75 close contacts are reached and asked to self-isolate. Only 25 of these people don’t live with the person who tested positive, less than 14 of this group are reached within 24 hours, less than five of them might isolate.”

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