Test and trace: Scientists attack failure to reveal how many people are isolating as instructed

Independent Sage group also warns new infections in England have 'levelled off' - and are still too high to eliminate coronavirus

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Friday 10 July 2020 13:49
Coronavirus in numbers

The troubled test and trace system is facing fresh criticism because the government will not reveal how many people are isolating after being contacted.

Scientists said it made it impossible to judge the scheme’s success or failure – while pointing to “internal surveys” suggesting many people could not afford to stay home, as instructed.

The criticism came as the Independent Sage group warned the number of new infections in England – while significantly down on a month ago – had “levelled off” and was still too high to eliminate coronavirus.

It also attacked the decision to reopen gyms from later this month, so soon after the public returned to pubs and restaurants, one expert arguing it was “a lot more risk to add”.

And Anthony Costello, a former director of the World Health Organisation, took aim at Rishi Sunak for failing to wear a mask when serving customers to promote his meal-discount scheme.

Branding it “a terrible mistake”, the professor of global health said: “Our message is wear masks indoors, wear masks in public places – and ministers should be setting a good example.”

On the lack of test and trace data, Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at University College London, warned: “It’s the isolating of contacts that makes contact-tracing work, but we still don’t know anything about the numbers.”

Under the scheme, anyone identified as having been in close contact with someone who tests positive test is told to stay at home for 14 days, even if they do not have symptoms.

But ministers have resisted pressure to make special payments to any workers told to isolate – despite the low level of statutory sick pay and tight eligibility rules.

Professor Pagel pointed to an admission by Dido Harding, who is in charge of the scheme, that “internal surveys” had found people struggling to isolate for financial reasons.

‘People are saying it’s really hard to isolate – it’s hard for financial reasons, because they lose money in their jobs,” she warned.

Even the data produced shows that test-and-trace is still reaching only 77 per cent of people who test positive, while the percentage of their “close contacts” reached is falling.

It stands at just 70.8 per cent – compared with 90 per cent when it was launched – with a total of 25,362 contacts not reached over the five weeks it has been running.

“We have test and trace system that is doing something, but it’s not getting any better,” Professor Pagel added.

During an online press conference, the group faced criticism that its warnings of the risks of opening up economy and society had not come to pass, despite the lifting of many restrictions.

Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology, insisted it did not want to come across as a “miserable, killjoy, moany lot”, while David King, a former chief scientific adviser, pointed to the experience in Israel.

It had been hit by a “second spike much bigger than the first”, he warned, adding: “At all costs, we have got to avoid taking that risk.”

The prime minister’s spokesman was unable to say why no data was available for the numbers obeying instructions to isolate.

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