UK 'headed for full lockdown next month' amid test and trace 'disaster', ex-chief scientist warns

9 August 2020, 10:05

The test and trace system was branded a 'disaster' by Sir David King
The test and trace system was branded a 'disaster' by Sir David King. Picture: PA

By Ewan Somerville

Britain could be headed for a full lockdown next month because of the “disastrous” test and trace programme, a former Government chief scientific adviser has warned.

Sir David King told the Sunday Mirror that the UK is “nowhere near” the safe reopening of schools, adding: “We need a proper test and trace system by September. Otherwise full school opening will put us right back.

“We will see the Government backing lockdowns and, yes, I do think this could happen nationally.”

It comes as Boris Johnson stressed on Sunday it was a “moral duty” to get all pupils back in the classroom in September, and hinted he would close shops, pubs and restaurants to do so.

A major study into Covid-19 in schools, measuring 20,000 children, is set to conclude “there is very little evidence that the virus is transmitted in schools,” the Sunday Times reports.

Several councils have set up their own tracing systems, blaming national failure
Several councils have set up their own tracing systems, blaming national failure. Picture: PA

Sir David, 80, the former chief scientific advisor to Tony Blair who now heads the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies shadowing the PM's scientific team, called on Mr Johnson to “get it right” with contact-tracing in August or face a second spike.

“The Government has a month to deal with the level of infectivity as it stands now. Reopening schools should be a priority, but we believe we are nowhere near the point where it can be done safely,” he said.

He said the R number - the rate of infection - is expected to rise by about 0.5 with all schools open. The UK-wide R rose slightly this week to 0.8-1.0. When above 1, the virus can rapidly accelerate again.

Leaked analysis this week showed that the national tracing service was reaching only 52 per cent of all close contacts of people who had become infected with Covid-19, prompting several authorities in northern England to establish their own systems.

Sir David added: “Test and trace is still failing dramatically.”

Urging the PM to let councils run it rather than a private company, he said: “Tracing here is one phone call and you are asked to isolate. There is no follow-up as to whether people do.” Ministers spent almost £12m on a contact-tracing app that did not work.

Preston, in Lancashire, became the latest city to have local lockdown curbs re-imposed this week following a spike in cases, with separate households banned from mixing indoors. Similar rules are in force across Greater Manchester, east Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “In just nine weeks NHS Test and Trace has tested over 3 million people for coronavirus and has reached almost a quarter of a million people who have either tested positive or have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive – in order to break the chain of transmission.

“Specially-trained call handlers work with national and local public health experts, NHS clinicians and local health protection teams, and play a vital role in helping to stop the spread of the virus.”