Coronavirus test results too slow for effective contact tracing

Most coronavirus tests are too slow for effective contact tracing, figures suggest. The scheme is also struggling to trace people as they move around more.

looks like another Boris pledge is going to be missed – Owl

Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor 

Just 8 per cent of home testing kits and 14 per cent of the batch kits sent out by post have results within 24 hours, making it much harder to hit the goal of tracing and isolating contacts within 48 hours of someone becoming ill.

Six in ten home tests take more than 48 hours and officials are now encouraging people to go to testing sites in person if they can.

Postal kits made up 58 per cent of the “pillar 2” or community tests carried out over the past week, with the remainder processed by drive-through and mobile testing units.

These were significantly faster, with 72 per cent and 60 per cent of tests getting results within 24 hours respectively in the week to June 24.

However, Boris Johnson’s pledge to have all of these tests done within 24 hours by the end of June appears to be in significant doubt. Officials argue that more than 97 per cent of non-postal tests are now coming back the next day. With these they believe they are getting closer to the goal of isolating 80 per cent of contacts within 48 hours of a person becoming ill.

This is the benchmark set by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies for an effective system that can avoid a second wave and allow secondary schools to reopen in September.

The figures also do not include “pillar 1” tests carried out in NHS hospitals and Public Health England laboratories, which measure speed differently. The NHS says its average turnaround time is 14 hours but in 10 per cent of labs the average is more than 24 hours.

Baroness Harding of Winscombe, executive chairwoman of NHS Test and Trace, said: “We have seen significant improvements in the time it takes to process test results, an important step to rapidly reach the contacts of those testing positive and ask them to self-isolate to prevent them spreading the virus further.”

She argued that the real issue was ensuring people did not soldier on when they were ill but ordered a test quickly, saying: “If you have coronavirus symptoms, get a test immediately.”

The latest figures also show that a quarter of people with confirmed coronavirus referred to the scheme still cannot be contacted.

Justin Madders, a shadow health minister, said that the number of people being contacted was “well below the levels we need to effectively contain the virus”. He added: “The performance so far simply isn’t good enough and far from the world-leading system we were promised. We know for there to be an effective testing and tracing system . . . results need to be back quickly.”

The scheme is finding it harder to reach trace contacts, with the proportion reached and asked to self-isolate falling from 90 per cent in the first week of the scheme to 73 per cent last week. This is because at the start of the scheme the vast majority of contacts were part of outbreaks in places such as care homes and schools, but now rising numbers involve contacts in ordinary daily life.