Government declines to set date for contact-tracing app

Written by Kate Forrester on 8 July 2020 in News

Head of Test and Trace programme Baroness Harding says she does not want to specify a timeframe as projects often do not ‘run in a smooth way’

Credit: tigerlily713 from Pixabay

The government is still unable to provide a date for the unveiling of a functioning coronavirus contact-tracing app after it was forced to ditch the original model.

Baroness Dido Harding, who is in charge of the NHS Test and Trace service, told the Lords science committee she was "keen not to commit to a date” on which any new technology might be up and running because such projects do not "run in a smooth way".

But she said she wanted the service to be human-led and "digitally supported" rather than relying on an app, because people respond better when they are asked to isolate by a person rather than via automated message.

Harding told peers that, since 28 May, 73.9% of people who had tested positive for Covid-19 had been reached and asked to provide contacts, and that a "clear path" towards reaching the 80% target advised by the government's Sage advisory committee could now be seen.

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She said community leaders had a vital role to play across the country in terms of encouraging and supporting those who have been asked to self-isolate by the NHS service.

"The local public health teams are an intrinsic part of our test and trace service," she added. "So, the teams in local government and the regional teams in Public Health England are an absolutely essential component of that end-to-end, national to local, multi-panel test and trace services."

Harding’s comments come as Downing Street announced it would no longer publish daily coronavirus testing figures, with the Prime Minister's spokesman claiming that due to repeat and routine testing, the statistics would no longer provide an "accurate reflection of the amount of daily testing that is taking place".

“Test and trace statistics published weekly do still include the number of people who have been tested," he added.

Labour shadow health minister Justin Madders described the move as "an absolute shambles".

"It seems that the real reason why the government stopped issuing figures for the number of people tested each day is because they never hit their 100,000 people a day target and they were too embarrassed to admit it," he added. “We know that the number of people actually tested is less than a third of the number of tests they state are being completed. It is clear that ministers are losing control over the testing regime and are failing to not only keep track of the tests but to ensure the results are returned swiftly. 

“Ministers need to get to grips with the state of the testing regime and be far more open about where the failings are. As lockdown measures are relaxed it is vital the public have confidence that there is an effective test and trace system in place.”

Harding said a new 'backward tracing' system is currently being trialled in Leicester.

Cases of coronavirus have spiked in the city, prompting the introduction of local lockdown measures as the rest of England began to ease restrictions further.

Normal contact tracing asks patients to provide details of the people they have been in contact with in the two days before developing symptoms.  The backward tracing system examines the previous 14 days.

"I think as the rate of infection comes down, backward tracing becomes increasingly viable," Harding told the committee. "I think it's an important component in the overall model."


About the author

Kate Forrester is senior reporter at PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared. She tweets as @kateforrester.

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