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NHS test, track and trace fails to reach third of Covid-19 cases in first week

by Nicola Merrifield
12 June 2020

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A third of people who tested positive for Covid-19 were not contacted by the Government’s new test, track and trace programme in England in its first week of operation.

Official figures have revealed that between 28 May and 3 June, a total of 8,117 people who tested positive were transferred to the programme.

But only 5,407 of those were reached and asked to pass on the details of people they had been in ‘close contact’ with so that this further group of people could be advised to isolate and stop transmission of the virus.

Overall, the programme was able to trace 31,794 people who had been in close contact with those who had Covid-19 – but, of those, only 85% were spoken to and agreed to self-isolate, according to statistics released by the Department of Health and Social Care.

Those behind the programme said the reason for 15% of close contacts not self isolating was a combination of incorrect phone numbers being provided and some people refusing to self isolate.

They said people working for the programme were calling close contacts each around 10 times in the first 24 hours to try and reach them.

Meanwhile, they stressed that the vast majority (79%) of the 5,407 people who tested positive and were spoken to had received the call within 24 hours of the test and trace programme receiving the lab result.

They also highlighted that while a third of people who tested positive could not be reached to ascertain the details of their close contacts, they were still advised to self isolate which has a ‘large benefit’ in controlling the virus.

Professor John Newton, director of health improvement for Public Health England, who is helping to lead the test and trace programme, said: ‘Of the others [who tested positive but were unable to be followed up] they will all have received a positive test and all been told themselves to self isolate and to tell their households to self isolate.

‘We make an assumption that the ones that we’ve not been able to contact – either because we haven’t got accurate contact details or some other reason – if they have the same number of contacts as those we have been able to reach and they’ve been telling their household to isolate, then that’s a high proportion.’

‘The Royal Society’s DELVE [Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics] report points out a very large amount of the benefit comes from isolating individual cases and their household contacts as well.’

Baroness Dido Harding, chief executive of NHS Improvement and chair of the Government’s test and trace programme, added: ‘There is clearly more for us to do – we are not saying this is perfect. But for the first week of a nationwide new citizen service we are encouraged by the way the public is reacting to this.’

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘NHS Test and Trace is a new service on a scale never seen before, designed to help us control and contain this virus, and save lives.

‘The service is key to helping us to return to a more normal way of life. We need everyone’s support and collaboration to ensure that we can continue to keep infections falling.’