Coronavirus: UK will not recover economically unless 'radical new approach' taken, warn scientists

Programme undermined by 'erosion of trust' in government over recent weeks, report warns

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 09 June 2020 12:10 BST
Face coverings: What is the new Government advice?

The goverment’s test, track and trace system is “not fit for purpose” and Britain will not recover economically from the Covid-19 crisis unless a radical new approach is taken to it, an eminent independent group of scientists has warned.

It will be “impossible” under the centralised system introduced by Matt Hancock and hailed as ‘world beating’ by Boris Johnson to trace and isolate enough at-risk people to eliminate coronavirus, said the Independent Sage group led by the government’s former chief scientific adviser David King.

And the group warned that the “erosion of trust” in government over recent weeks - particularly among ethnic minority communities - is likely to undermine compliance with the scheme, which relies on those identified as contacts of infected people voluntarily self-isolating for 14 days.

An effective test and trace programme is "essential if we are to recover our economy, protect livelihoods and secure longer‐term well-being and health provision for all", said the report, pointedly concluding that this "is clearly not happening" now.

Crucially, it said that a successful test and trace system must provide people identified as contacts with facilities to self-isolate, support with food and money and guarantees from employers that they can return to work, so that they will feel ready to accept restrictions on their movements for a fortnight.

The report warned that the UK remains in a “critical” stage of its battle with coronavirus, with the pandemic still growing in some parts of the country.

And it was scathing about the test and trace system for England led by Conservative peer Dido Harding, which involves private contractors providing 25,000 tracers to get in touch with contacts and tell them to go into isolation in their own homes.

The virus will only be contained if 80 per cent or more of contacts of infected people are traced and isolated, and this “is clearly not happening” under the Harding scheme, the report said.

It condemned the system as “untested and being operated by companies with no experience in this area”, pointing out that Lady Harding herself has told parliament it will not be fully functional until September. And it called for it to be radically restructured, with responsibility handed over to local public health directors.

The scientists also criticised the “apparent failure” of the NHSX smartphone app - designed to alert people if they have been within two metres of a Covid sufferer - which has not been rolled out nationwide following a troubled trial on the Isle of Wight.

“Importantly this was one of the many areas that the UK went its own way taking an approach that was very different to other countries,” the report said.

The report included criticism from the government’s own Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) about the inaccuracy of home swabbing and the high number of false negatives which the programme has produced.

The system can only work with sufficient access to rapid testing, but there are “multiple concerns” that this is not available in England, it said.

The Independent Sage group called for the government to draw on the experience of New Zealand, which has successfully eliminated coronavirus, to develop a more integrated “find, test, trace, isolate and support’ model.

Such a programme would be embedded within existing healthcare networks using local authority and NHS professionals with robust accountability mechanisms.

And it would provide a comprehensive support package for contacts asked to self-isolate, including material support, a place to stay and guarantees that they will be able to return to work.

Prof Sir David King said: “The government has placed huge emphasis on their test, track and trace system in recent weeks, even labelling it ‘world beating’.

“It is clear from our research that this simply isn’t the case, indeed the system as it stands is not fit for purpose.

“This is the critical moment for the government to act now or risk further spikes.

“We believe that a new approach is required, one that moves away from a centralised system that utilises a ‘local first’ approach. We are calling on the government to urgently rethink their course to ensure that we have a system in place that will help and not hinder the country’s recovery.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “NHS Test and Trace is a new service on a scale never seen before which is helping to control and contain the virus, and ultimately save lives. This report fails to acknowledge the recommendations it makes have either already been implemented or are underway.

“We have built up an entire testing industry in a matter of weeks and are now helping thousands of people book a test, isolate and share their recent close contacts – with anyone who needs a test able to get one.

“We are continuously making improvements to NHS Test and Trace, including sharing more data with local areas and healthcare systems. To further support the rollout we are providing £300 million, alongside comprehensive support, to assist councils in developing outbreak control plans for their areas.”

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