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Covid-19 Statistics: NHS Test and Trace

Test and Trace statistics for Covid-19 in England.

The following article was written in October 2020. Bear in mind that the statistics are becoming out of date. In March 2021, the cross-party public accounts committee concluded there was 'no evidence' to show that the government’s £22bn test-and-trace programme to combat Covid-19 in England had contributed to a reduction in coronavirus infection levels.

What is NHS Test and Trace?

According to the government, NHS Test and Trace:

  • ensures that anyone who develops Covid-19 symptoms is quickly tested,
  • helps trace close recent contacts of anyone who tests positive and
  • tellls those contacts, if necessary, to self-isolate at home. 

It is branded NHS but it is not run by the NHS. It is led by a Conservative politician Baroness Harding and the work is mostly outsourced to private companies including Serco UK, SITEL Group and Amazon Web Services who provide data storage and employ contact tracers. It was reorganised in August 2020 to take a more regional approach and make greater use of local authorities’ public health expertise. 

How is the system doing?

It has expanded testing capacity enormously. By mid-October, it was testing nearly 1.5 million people, three times the number tested in early June. However, in that period the percentage of positive tests has also increased massively from less than 3% in early June to more than 7% in mid-October. Many more tests plus a higher percentage of positive tests means that there are now tens of thousands of people testing positive every week.

Because it is effectively a private not a public service, we have little idea what is going on inside Test and Trace but whistleblower reports suggest that tracers - often young people on minimum wage - are being asked to do more and more with virtually no training. 

Can the system trace thousands of people?

It's difficult. Test and Trace tried to contact 28 times as many people in the week ending 14th October as it did in the week ending 8 July. As the numbers it tries to contact increase, so the number it fails to reach increases too. Even though the percentage of people not contacted is falling slightly, the actual number is increasing enormously with the result that for the week-ending 14th October, over 40% of the close contacts of those who tested positive could not be contacted. Back in May 2020, Sage, the committee which advises the government, said that at least 80% of contacts need to isolate for the system to be effective.

The government has announced plans to test 10% of the population every week but, even if this is possible, without effective tracing, the benefit is uncertain.

Is testing being done quickly enough?

The testing speed data below shows that a lot of tests are still taking longer than 72 hours to process, especially home tests and those from satellite centres set up to deal with high levels of local demand. In the first two weeks of October, over half of home tests have taken longer than 72 hours to turn round. These delays make self-isolation less-effective and tracking and tracing more difficult. 

Has the system reached breaking point?

Back in March at the start of the pandemic, the government stopped trying to contact everyone because the then far smaller testing and tracing system didn't have the capacity. Six months and at least twelve billion pounds later, we seem to be in much the same place. The alternative to tracing earlier in the year was the so-called 'lockdown'.

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