Coronavirus: 100,000 people not contacted as tracing system hits new low

Professor James Naismith of the University of Oxford said the figures show “a system struggling to make any difference to the epidemic”.

Baroness Harding of Winscombe, head of Test and Trace:  “Reducing turnaround times is our absolute priority …..” [Hope readers are reassured by Dido’s words- Owl]

Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor 

The Test and Trace system has hit a new low with less than 60 per cent of contacts being reached for the first time and waiting times for results up 60 per cent in a week.

Contact tracers are struggling to cope with efforts to return to normal life as weekly cases have risen to 101,494 and 7.1 per cent of all tests are coming back positive, a sign that the system is losing track of the epidemic.

Experts questioned whether the system was salvageable as cases continue to rise, but testing chiefs are bullish that more capacity and thousands more clinical contact tracers can keep pace.

Despite a recovery from the back-to-school rush last month, waits for results are now getting longer with only 15.1 per cent of drive-through and walk-in tests back within 24 hours in the week to October 14, under half the figure of the previous week.

At a press conference in Downing Street Boris Johnson said he “shares people’s frustration” with the performance of NHS Test and Trace. “We do need to improve it,” he said.

In the summer the prime minister promised all such tests would be returned within 24 hours. However, one in 12 drive-through results now take more than three days, five times the proportion of the previous week. Average waits for results for drive-through tests are now 45 hours, up from 28 hours the previous week.

Nick Ville, of the NHS Confederation, said this was “leaving people in limbo as they wait for results”, while the proportion of contacts of positive cases successfully reached fell to 59.6 per cent.

“This is well below the 80 per cent said to be needed for an effective system,” Mr Ville said.

“Without significant improvements, the situation will simply deteriorate: case numbers will rise; more cases will be transferred to the tracing system; tracers will not be able to keep up with the volume; lower percentages of people will be reached and asked to isolate; the spread of the virus will not be controlled; and unfortunately more lives will be lost.”

When the system was set up in May, 91 per cent of contacts were traced but the proportion has slipped as more contacts are made at work and in social life rather than as part of outbreaks in institutions such as care homes, where tracing has proved easier.

Infected people had 238,093 contacts in everyday life, more than ten times the figure at the start of August.

Justin Madders, the shadow health minister, pointed out that this meant 101,690 confirmed contacts were not traced. “To have over 40 per cent of people not even being contacted by the test and trace system is an interstellar-sized black hole in the government’s plan to reduce transmission,” he said.

Professor James Naismith of the University of Oxford said the figures show “a system struggling to make any difference to the epidemic”.

He said: “Getting an effective system over the summer was much easier than doing so now. It is not enough to say ‘we will work harder’ or ‘I alone can fix it’. If the system is to be made effective, and I have my doubts if this now possible, it will need a clear set of plans that explain what changes are being made and how these will fill in the holes that I and many others have spelt out.”

Baroness Harding of Winscombe, head of Test and Trace, said that capacity had increased by 30,000 a day in a week and insisted: “Reducing turnaround times is our absolute priority to make sure we are reaching people as soon as possible. We always need to balance ensuring as many people as possible can get a test alongside ensuring test results are delivered as quickly as possible, and as capacity continues to grow at pace, we expect to see improvements.”

Lord Bethell, the testing minister, acknowledged: “We do know that more needs to be done.”