Government defends Test and Trace as proportion of contacts being reached drops sharply

Written by Alain Tolhurst and Sam Trendall on 3 July 2020 in News
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In the first two weeks tracers were successfully reaching more than nine in ten identified close contacts, but this has now fallen to less than three quarters

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Downing Street has defended the NHS Test and Trace system after new figures revealed it is still not finding a quarter of people who test positive for coronavirus.

Number 10 said the scheme was a “new large-scale service and it will improve over time” after the latest statistics also showed – for the second week in succession – a marked fall in the number of close contacts of those infected being contacted. Over the last fortnight, the proportion of identified close contacts that tracers have been unable to reach has risen from one in ten to more than one in four.

But the government pointed to the fact it has already reached 130,000 people who otherwise may have unknowingly spread the virus and asked them to self-isolate.

Data from the Department for Health and Social Care for the fourth week of Test and Trace’s operation (18-24 June) shows 6,183 people were referred to the programme.


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But of those positive cases, only 4,639 were reached by the teams of contact tracers, around 75% of the total. That was slightly up from the previous week’s figure of 72.3%.

Meanwhile, only 3,497 of those people who were contacted then provided details of who they had been in close proximity to.

NHS Test and Trace said from that data they were able to identify 23,028 people who needed to self-isolate – and managed to get in touch with 16,804.

This represents a success rate of 73% – compared with 82.4% in the prior week and, in each of the first two weeks of the programme, more than 90%.

But the prime inister’s official spokesman defended the system, saying: “It is a new large-scale service designed to help us contain the virus. We have now reached more than 130,000 people who may otherwise have been unknowingly spreading the virus. We’ve always said we'll continue making improvements as we go along so we do reach more people more quickly.”

And the government said improvements in turnaround times for testing, along with changes to what time of day contact tracers try and get hold of people, will see the service get better.

Baroness Dido Harding, chair 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. I am very grateful to all those who have played their part and responded so well to the service.”

But Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said the data shows that, so far, the system has been “an absolute shambles”.

She added: “When the government's own figures show that one in four people with coronavirus are still being missed, at this point it feels like we are flying blind.”

And Justin Madders, Labour’s shadow health minister, said the figures were “well below the levels we need to effectively contain the virus”.

“As we now begin to see localised lockdowns we need Ministers to be far more rigorous about getting to the bottom of why the contact rate isn’t improving,” he said. “The performance so far simply isn’t good enough and far from the world-leading system we were promised.”

 

About the author

Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared. He tweets as @Alain_Tolhurst.

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