England’s Test and Trace system fails to reach almost 350,000 people

8 October 2020, 22:49

By Ben Kentish

England’s Test and Trace system has failed to reach almost 350,000 people who needed to be contacted in recent months, LBC analysis suggests.

Tracers were unable to speak to 348,684 people who needed to be reached to either ask for their contacts or to warn them that they had been in contact with a confirmed Covid case.

The number, obtained through analysis of official government figures, consists of:

- 34,921 people who tested positive but could not be reached by contact tracers – one in five of all the people who were referred to the Test and Trace system.

- 127,276 close contacts of people who tested positive - 24% of all close contacts named by those with a positive test result.

- An estimated 141,487 people who were close contacts of the positive cases that were not successfully contacted (based on an average of 4.05 contacts being listed by each positive case)

It suggests that for each of the 689,000 people successfully contacted by Test and Trace, there is another who needed to be reached but was not.

In some cases this will be because they did not respond to phone calls or emails, and in other cases because contact tracers were not provided with correct contact details.

The finding comes on the day it was revealed that the proportion of contacts successfully reached by NHS Test and Trace has sunk to the lowest point since the system launched in late May.

In the week to 30th September, only 68.6% of contacts were successfully reached – down from a high of 81.7 in mid-June.

The system is also struggling when it comes to reaching people who tested positive, in order to ask for the details of anyone they have had close contact with in the days before they tested positive.

74% of positive cases were successfully contacted in the most recent week – down from 82.7 per cent at the start of September.

Ministers have previously insisted that the Test and Trace system, established from scratch in a matter of weeks earlier in the year, would continue to improve, but the latest figures suggest the trend is going in the wrong direction as the number of cases – and therefore the demand placed on contact tracers – continue to soar.

Significant improvement is likely to be needed if the UK is to have the “world-beating” system that Boris Johnson talked of back in May – something that experts say, if it is fully functioning, has the potential to avert the need for new lockdowns.

In August, the government announced that it was cutting the number of national contact tracers employed by Serco, the company that is operating most of the contact tracing system, from 18,000 to 12,000 and instead focusing resources on regional tracing.

Today, government sources said staffing levels were being kept under constant review.

Commenting on the latest Test and Trace statistics, Conservative peer Dido Harding, head of the NHS Test and Trace system, said: “As the number of cases rise, so demand for tests continues to grow.

"We are working hard to increase testing capacity to meet that demand and improve turnaround times for tests.

"The announcement today of new partnership agreements with four London university labs, will see tens of thousands of extra tests being processed over the coming months and into the new year.

“We have now opened 500 test sites across the UK, an extraordinary achievement. This increased accessibility to testing means the median distance a person is travelling to a test site is now just 3.7 miles.

“Alongside this NHS Test and Trace has now reached nearly 700,000 people and advised them to self-isolate. I would like to thank each and every person playing their part in tackling this virus for the efforts they are making.”