Britain’s Test and Trace system is being overwhelmed by a surge in coronavirus infections after it only reached 63 per cent of close contacts of people who had tested positive for the virus, the lowest weekly percentage ever recorded.
Damning figures published by the Department for Health show the beleaguered system failed to speak to 81,000 contacts of Covid-19 cases in England in the first week of October, meaning tens of thousands of infected people may have been allowed to walk the streets without knowing they were carrying the disease.
And one-in-five Covid-19 positive patients aren’t reached for at least three days, meaning it is taking even longer to get to many of the contacts who are reached increasing the risk of the virus being spread before they develop symptoms.
Labour slammed the figures as ‘absolutely staggering’ and called on the Government to initiate a new circuit breaker lockdown to give ministers time to fix the ramshackle system.
Turning his fire-power on ministers, Shadow Health Minister Justin Madders MP warned: ‘It is absolutely staggering that week upon week the performance of test and trace keeps getting worse and worse.
‘Surely Ministers must see that the system is falling apart and what was supposed to be world beating is in fact now one of the biggest obstacles to us getting on top of the virus?’
NHS Providers, which represents NHS Trusts across the country, blasted the Government’s testing system saying it was ‘deeply unfortunate’ that there was ‘still clearly a long way to go until our Test and Trace system is fit for purpose’.
But despite the figures showing a clear drop, Health Secretary Matt Hancock insisted in the House of Commons today that the system is reaching a record number of people faster than ever.
The shocking report also revealed:
- More than half of people taking home testing kits are not getting their results for three days, with the average waiting time rising to 75 hours;
- Almost one in five contacts of coronavirus-infected patients are not being reached within three days, its worst ever result;
- Test positivity rate has crept to 6.2 per cent, above the five per cent threshold which the WHO says is indicative of the Government failing to deliver enough tests;
- Cases jumped from 54,000 to 89,000 week-on-week in the first week of October, according to figures;
The failure — a clear signal the system which officials promised to be world-beating is struggling to cope with the first spike in cases — means that tens of thousands of potentially-infected have potentially been allowed to roam freely in the community.
SAGE has warned the system needs to call at least 80 per cent of all contacts and ensure they self-isolate, in order to stop the spread of infection.
The average time taken for a contact to be identified and then told to self-isolate by Test and Trace has been falling since the week ending September 23. The testing system is being overwhelmed by a surge in positive cases
More coronavirus positive patients were transferred to Test and Trace than ever before (as shown by the graph), but the system failed to reach 20,000 Covid-19 cases in the first week of October
This shows the percentage of positive cases reached by local health teams by regions across England. There are drops in parts of the North West, which may reflect the system being overwhelmed by a surge in cases
This shows the percentage of contacts reached by online and call-centre contact tracers. The system failed to reach almost 81,000 contacts that were identified in the first week of October
London to enter Tier 2 lockdown on Friday
Matt Hancock today declared that millions of Londoners face tougher lockdown from tomorrow night as the government ramps up efforts to tackle the coronavirus surge.
The capital will face tighter Tier Two controls from midnight tomorrow after a deal was done with mayor Sadiq Khan. Essex, Elmbridge, Barrow in Furness, York, North East Derbyshire, Chesterfield and Erewash will also be placed into the same category.
It means as of Saturday nine million Londoners will be banned from mixing with other households indoors, including in bars and other venues. Socialising outdoors – including in pub and private gardens – will still be allowed within the Rule of Six.
However, plans to put Greater Manchester and Lancashire into Tier Three have hit a roadblock as mayor Andy Burnham and local leaders push for a bigger bailout and threaten to sue.
A call between health minister Helen Whately and local MPs is said to have descended into a slanging match this morning, with Tories among the harshest critics. Mr Hancock did not announce any action in the Commons statement. Labour MP for Manchester Central Lucy Powell said there had been ‘unanimous fury’ on the call. ‘We want action but it has to be the right action,’ she said.
Contact tracers were required to reach 216,000 contacts of those who had tested positive for coronavirus in the first week of October, more than double the previous week’s 101,000 identified contacts.
For cases handled by local health protection teams, 97.7 per cent of almost 27,000 contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate in the week to October 7. Only 613 were not contacted.
For those handled either online or by call centres, 57.6 per cent of 189,000 contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate. As many as 40,000 were not reached, and an additional 40,000 could not be reached as no contact details were provided.
Contact tracers were also asked to get in touch with 87,000 positive cases of coronavirus, which was also more than double the previous week’s more than 34,000.
Of these as many as 20,000 were not reached and asked to provide details of their close contacts by the service during the first week of October, suggesting that Britain’s outbreak will continue to grow as thousands of contacts exposed to the virus are not told to self-isolate.
This means they continue circulating in the community and inadvertently spreading the virus, as people tend to become infectious before developing tell-tale symptoms – a high temperature, continuous cough and loss of taste or smell.
It was the highest weekly number of Covid-19 infected patients not reached since Test and Trace was launched at the end of May.
Home testing kits are now taking 75 hours to be processed by labs, and only 16 per cent are having their test results sent out within 48 hours.
This is a significant drop from the last week in September when 30 per cent were receiving their results within 48 hours.
There were 1.5million tests carried out under Pillar 2 in the first week of October, which includes home-testing kits and those done on drive-through and mobile testing sites.
Boris Johnson had pledged to get all coronavirus test results out within 24 hours by the end of June, but this promise has not been met.
Experts say speed in turning around the kits is vital to ensuring those infected and their close contacts are reached quickly and asked to self-isolate. But delays in processing tests are seriously hampering efforts to stem the spread of the virus, and helping to drive the surging Covid-19 cases seen across the UK.
The median distance travelled to a testing centre also fell from 3.7 miles to 3.3 miles, according to Government figures.
This week’s figures include around two per cent of the almost 16,000 cases that were previously unreported following technical errors at Public Health England.
As the system fails to reach more and more people every week, it is inundated with more positive cases to contact than ever
The number of people tested for coronavirus was the highest in the first week in October than at any other time
Saffron Cordery, the chief executive of NHS Providers, slammed the figures saying: ‘We need an effective Test and Trace system as a key part of our efforts to track and contain the spread of the virus.
‘It’s deeply unfortunate that at this point with infections rising, admissions increasing and winter looming, there’s still clearly a long way to go until our Test and Trace system is fit for purpose.
‘It is good to see a high proportion of positive cases transferred into the system, but this must be done in a timely manner, and success also depends on reaching them and their contacts, and then compliance with the need to self-isolate.’ She added: ‘The truth is we all have a role to play.’
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Hancock insisted the figures show ‘testing capacity is up, testing turn around times are down and the distance travelled for tests is down too’.
‘And thanks to this capacity and this analysis we’ve been able to take a more targeted approach keeping a close eye on the situation in local areas, baring down hard through restrictions on a local level where they’ve necessary.’
But Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth swiped back, declaring the figures are another ‘record blow’ to the Government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
‘The British people have made a huge sacrifice already and we are heading into the bleakest of winters,’ he said.
‘Much of this could have been avoided if the miss-firing Test and Trace system had been fixed over the summer. Today the new figures show just 62 per cent of contacts were reached. That’s equivalent to 81,000 not reached, circulating in society, even though they’ve been exposed to the virus.
‘This is another record blow and yesterday we learnt that consults working on Test and Trace are being paid over £6,000 a day to run this failing service. In a single week the Government is paying these senior consultants more than they pay an experienced nurse in a year.
‘So can the Secretary of State explain why such huge sums of money are being paid to consultants to run a service that is only getting worse?’
Turn around time for home tests is now 75 hours on average, leaving people using them waiting three days for their results
There has also been a surge in the proportion of the number of people testing positive, reaching 6.2 per cent of total tests
He added: ‘Look around, explain Health Secretary why not do a circuit breaker now. Because if we do this in a few weeks or a few months time more lives and livelihoods will be lost.’
Hancock asserted in response: ‘He mentions Test and Trace, but the figures show there have actually been a record high number of people who have been contacted by NHS Test and Trace.
‘Reaching more people, testing more people faster than at any other point and he might have seen that yesterday internationally this was commented on as an area where we have done well here in the UK.
‘So, of course we want to make sure we get things even faster and we have an even greater testing capacity but I think we’d do better to reflect on the progress that has been made.’
Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt urged the Government to announce a date by which it would be able to test every citizen for coronavirus every week.
‘Is not now the time to announce a date, whether it is February, March, April in next year, by when every single person in the population will be tested every week so that by then irrespective of progress on a vaccine, irrespective of the success of local lockdowns, irrespective of other uncertainties, with have a date by when we know we will get the virus under control and we know we have some prospect of returning to normality.’