Coronavirus: Second wave in December ‘likely’ unless Test and Trace improves dramatically

Video report by ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan

Easing lockdown is a tricky business.

Doing it too fast, too soon or all at once will allow coronavirus to surge back - lifting it slowly or prolonging it will have huge social and economic consequences.

So, the task for ministers and government scientific advisors has been to take measured, calculated risks and ease it slowly, two weeks at a time and monitor the effects.

None of this would be possible though without a robust test, trace and isolate system in place. Why? Because testing people, tracing their contacts and telling them to isolate is, at the moment, the only way to stop the spread of the virus.

There is no vaccine yet and as the World Health Organisation warned yesterday, there may never be. We need to be prepared to live with this for the foreseeable future. 

News then that scientists are warning current testing and tracing is not good enough to prevent a second wave is worrying.

In modelling, looking at a range of scenarios, scientists suggest when schools open and parents start to go back to work and communities open up, we could be looking at a second wave in December twice as bad as the first, unless testing and tracing improves.

The researchers say only 50% of contacts of Covid cases are being reached, even if that rises to 68%, with schools fully opening, another outbreak is highly likely.

This just underlines the importance of a fully functioning test and trace system.

Only yesterday the government was trumpeting two new testing kits that can turn around results in 90 minutes.

Nearly half a million of them will be rolled out next week to care homes and labs, supposedly helping to reach the target of 500,000 tests being done a day.

But even that is not guaranteed. Some scientists are warning the tests themselves are unchecked, little known about and might not be accurate.

ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan explains that the rise in the number of tests may explain why the number of cases is not going down

The government, they say, is backing technology that comes with risks and we won’t know whether it’ll be effective for many weeks. 

The question is this; is our test and trace system good enough to allow schools to reopen fully, get parents back to work as well as continue opening up other facilities?

The scientists today, say no.

Admittedly the modelling is based on many different assumptions but we have little else to go on.

The government insists our tracking system is one of the best in the world and improving all the time.

It may be improving all the time but will it improve enough in just over a month to ensure schools can open and a second wave is avoided?

This is where drastic decisions will need to be taken; will schools open at the expense of pubs and, or restaurants?

The last five months have taught us that a lot can happen in five weeks and I’m just pleased it’s not me who will have to make that call at the end of August. 

Today the local authority with the highest infection rate in England has also launched its own contact tracing system.

Staff from Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council set up its own virus-hunting team after the national test and trace system failed to reach hundreds of vulnerable residents.

Under the new scheme, the council, which is being supported by Public Health England said staff will track down people who weren't reached by the national system after 48 hours. If local officials can't make contact after two days, council workers will do a home visit to give advice and offer support.

Figures released on Monday showed the rate of new cases in Blackburn with Darwen, fell slightly from 81.9 cases per 100,000 people in the seven days to July 24 to 77.9 in the seven days to July 31. A total of 116 new cases were recorded.