Coronavirus: Test and Trace has worst week since launch with 30% of close contacts missed

Video report by Science Editor Tom Clarke

NHS Test and Trace has had its worst week since it was launched in May, with more than 30% of coronavirus close contacts being missed, the latest figures have revealed.

The heavily criticised programme has consistently missed thousands of people who may been infected with Covid-19, but the week ending August 26 saw the system achieve its lowest ever success rate, with just 69.4% of close contacts being reached.

This is down from 77.1% in the previous week, new figures from the Department of Health and Social Care revealed.

The statistics also showed that in the same week England recorded its highest number of coronavirus cases since June 3, with 6,732 new positive test results.

Dido Harding, the Tory peer who was promoted from running Test and Trace, to leading the new National Institute for Public Health appeared optimistic about the figures.

She said: “NHS Test and Trace has been operating for more than three months and during that time it has consistently reached the majority of those testing positive and their contacts, almost 330,000 people at risk of unknowingly passing the virus on."

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he is "very worried" about the programme, which he said is "vital to progress".

Baroness Hardind defended the figures, telling the BBC: "We offer more people tests than any other European country and we reach 80% of all contacts who we have information for."

Asked why the latest figures show just 70% of close contacts are being reached, Baroness Harding said: "80% of whom where we have their contacts.

"So if people don't know the contact details of the individuals that they were close to, I'm sorry, the team I've got are completely brilliant, but they can't then reach them if they don't have any contact details for them.

"We are absolutely delivering on the targets that Sage set for us four months ago."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock earlier claimed the Government’s coronavirus testing system is working “well”, despite suggestions that people are being directed to centres more than 100 miles away.

A senior source said a change would go live on Thursday or Friday restricting test centre locations to within 75 miles, and it is understood there are plans to improve the algorithm so that it suggests more suitable locations for people requesting tests.

Mr Hancock said there are “operational challenges from time to time” with the regime, after a postcode analysis by the BBC showed some people are being told the closest available tests are hours from home.

The broadcaster said this shows the government is rationing tests, while public health experts believe any restrictions will lead to the start of new spikes being missed.

A senior source said a change would go live on Thursday or Friday restricting test centre locations to within 75 miles, and it is understood there are plans to improve the algorithm so that it suggests more suitable locations for people requesting tests.

Justin Madders, shadow health minister, described the latest figures as "hugely disappointing" and said there was "clearly a problem with testing infrastructure".

Sir Keir said it shows the UK hasn't got an "effective system", criticising the way some people have been told to travel for hours to test centres.

"What we're now seeing is a postcode lottery, this has got to improve, we all want it to improve, but the government is way too slow on this."

The health secretary told ITV News that the "vast majority of people can go a to a centre very close to where they live".

On Test and Trace, the latest figures show local health protection teams have a much higher success rate in reaching close contacts than their online or call centre colleagues.

For cases handled by local health protection teams, 97.3% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate in the week to August 26.

By contrast, for those cases handled either online or by call centres, 59.8% of close contacts have been reached and asked to self-isolate.

Since the launch of Test and Trace, 270,559 close contacts of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 have now been reached through the tracing system and asked to self-isolate.

This is 79.7% out of a total of 339,635 people identified as close contacts.

The remaining 69,076 people (20.3%) were identified as close contacts, but were not reached.

Mr Hancock told Sky News: “At the moment the system works well. Of course there are operational challenges from time to time but it works well.

“And we’re finding a higher and higher proportion of people in the country who have coronavirus and getting them tests so they can be looked after.

“But absolutely, we need to roll out more testing – we have done throughout this crisis and today’s another step in solving some of those problems with the existing technology.”

He said the issue was part of the reason why the Government was investing in trials of quicker Covid-19 tests.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

When questioned by ITV News on the long distance people are being asked to travel, Mr Hancock said: "The current system means that you can go to a centre. The vast majority of people can go to a centre very close to where they live".

On Thursday, the Government committed to a £500 million support package for 20-minute tests and efforts to explore the benefits of repeat testing.

The money will go towards expanding trials of the speedy no-swab saliva test in Southampton and elsewhere in Hampshire, and launching a repeat testing trial in Salford, Greater Manchester.

One professor believes this change should have been made over the summer when the country was “relatively Covid-secure”.

Professor Alan McNally, from the University of Birmingham, told Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t think the time is right. I think the time was right to think about scaling up testing to the wider community and asymptomatic testing over the summer when we were relatively Covid-secure, knowing that autumn and winter would come.

“Ideally we would be far more advanced in our ability to handle what we’re already beginning to see, an increase in requirement for Covid testing and respiratory infection testing.”