Test and Trace has continued its never-ending downward spiral as official figures today showed the bungling system is reaching fewer Covid-19 cases than when records began in May.
Department of Health statistics also revealed that of those the system did reach, it is taking even longer to track down their contacts.
The beleaguered system, once touted as world-leading, has lurched from failure to failure since schools and offices returned in September.
But despite the mounting disasters, Test and Trace bosses bragged the system had actually got better. They said it reached 60.3 per cent of all contacts – 171,674 – of all the people Covid-19 cases had spent time with in the week ending October 21, a slight rise from the previous week’s 59.6 per cent – 149,961.
But this still means four in ten were missed – streets away from the minimum of eight in ten SAGE said must be told to self-isolate in order to prevent another full-blown outbreak and second lockdown.
And one scientist said the figure is likely to be even worse because call handlers failed to get hold of almost 25,000 infected people in England – or 19.5 per cent – a surge from the almost 19,000 – or 19.3 per cent – missed the week before.
SAGE adds it is ‘vital’ contacts are reached quickly, as those carrying the virus can be infectious for up to 24 hours before they start displaying symptoms.
Yet the latest figures published by the Department of Health reveal Test and Trace is still trailing expectations on this measure after it only reached 28.9 per cent of contacts transferred to its system within 24 hours compared to 31.8 per cent the previous week.
Test and Trace missed more people who had tested positive for coronavirus than ever before, and hence more contacts. This graph shows that even among contacts that were reached, it still took longer for tracers to get hold of them and tell them to self-isolate after the positive case was identified
Test and Trace only reached 60 per cent of contacts in the week ending October 21. But scientists said that, because many positive cases were missed, the figure may be as low as only one in four contacts being reached
London’s R rate ‘is the worst in England’
Coronavirus is spreading fastest in London, according to a study that claims the R rate in the capital is almost as high as three and infections are doubling every three days.
Researchers at Imperial College London, who today estimated a staggering 100,000 people are catching Covid-19 every day across the country, warned the city has a ‘scary’ rate of spread.
For comparison, the experts claimed the national R rate is around 1.6 and cases are doubling every nine days.
They predicted the R rate — the average number of people each carrier infects — is higher than two in London, the South East, East and South West, which have mostly escaped any tough local lockdowns.
And of the entire south of England, London has the highest prevalence of coronavirus at 0.89 per cent, suggesting more than 80,000 of the city’s nine million residents were infected at any given moment.
Academics claimed the R rate in London may be 2.86, meaning those 80,000 people carrying the virus at the time of the study could be expected to infect another 229,000.
The possible range of the rate — which must stay below if an outbreak is to shrink — is between 1.47 and 4.87, they estimated.
Londoners are currently banned from meeting indoors with anyone they don’t live with, after mayor Sadiq Khan piled pressure on No10 to drag the city into Tier Two.
Infection rates vary across the 32 different boroughs – from 223 positive tests per 100,000 people in Ealing over the most recent week, to 103 per 100,000 in Lewisham.
A total of 126,505 people tested positive for Covid-19 at least once in the week to October 21 – a 25 per cent increase from the previous week and the highest since Test and Trace began publishing its figures in May.
After the positive swab they are transferred to the Test and Trace system which then gets in touch and asks them to provide details of their contacts.
For cases managed by local health protection teams, they reached and asked to self-isolate 97 per cent of contacts – or 15,711 of 15,237.
But for the call-centre based contact tracers only reached 58.1 per cent – or 156,317 of 268,990.
Only 22 per cent of people testing positive for the virus at regional, local or mobile testing units – termed ‘in-person’ tests – received their results within 48 hours.
This is up from the previous week – when it was 13.7 per cent – but there is a wide gulf between the figure and Boris Johnson’s promise to get all tests completed within 24 hours by June.
The Prime Minister told the Commons on June 3 that ‘all tests will be turned around within 24 hours by the end of June, except for difficulties with postal tests or insuperable problems like that’.
And for home-testing kits only 3.5 per cent of those issued in England were turned around within 24 hours. – up slightly from the previous week’s 2.8 per cent.
The figure rose to 24.9 per cent after 48 hours, also a slight increase from the previous week’s 14.1 per cent.
Of those that tested positive, 1.9 per cent – or 2,231 – had provided no contact details in the week ending October 22. This is an increase from the previous week when 1.5 per cent – or 1,470 – failed to give the details.
Slamming the figures, Professor James Naismith, from the University of Oxford, said they suggest less than half of contacts – around 40 per cent – are being reached.
‘Around 97,000 people who tested positive were reached for details, less than half in 24 hours,’ he said.
‘Of these contacts 172,000 were reached. Accounting for the fact one third of positive tests were either not contacted or gave no details, this suggests less than half of the contacts of the people who tested positive were reached.’
Pouring more salt on the wound, he added: ‘Of those reached more than 70 per cent were in the same household, so could have been reached without tracing.
‘Less than a third of contacts reached were reached within 24 hours of the positive case being identified.
‘Overall, this is 15 per cent of the contacts of the tested positive cases.’
It is essential that contacts are reached and reached promptly, in order for them to be advised to self-isolate and limit the spread of the virus in the community.
It is also critical for a high proportion to be reached – in order to ensure that all those contacted are motivated to isolate as their actions will be more likely to make a difference to the UK’s escalating outbreak.
Local health protection teams reached 97 per cent of contacts, compared to just above 50 per cent for contact tracers in call centres
Further delays in turning around swabs were recorded. Scientists have said positive cases must be identified rapidly to curb the virus – but many are waiting longer than 48 hours for their test results
Estimates released by Imperial today suggest that 100,000 infections are happening daily – as the outbreak doubles every nine days.
And experts at Cambridge University said they think around 55,000 people are being infected every seven days.
Both numbers are considerably more than the cases being identified by Test and Trace, which Professor Naismith said suggests less than half of infected people are being tested.
‘This simply divides all the numbers above. This is why the system has not, is not, and most likely will not halt the spread of the pandemic,’ he said.
Criticising test and trace further, Professor Naismith said it was likely not enough tests are being completed in England as the positivity rate has surged.
‘The REACT survey indicated 1.5million or more tests a day are needed for a five per cent positivity, and the Nowcast at least 750,000,’ he said.
But figures released by Public Health England reveal the UK is completed less than 300,000 swabs on October 27 – the latest for which data is available.
Boris Johnson had promised this number would be pushed up to 500,000 by the end of this month – a deadline that is almost 48 hours away.
Distance travelled to get a swab fell to 2.8 miles in the latest data, Department of Health said
Above are the percentage of contacts reached by tracers working in call centres since the service began in May
Professor David Heymann, an infectious disease expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said epidemiologists believe ‘the most useful indicator of the effectiveness of contact tracing is the number of new cases that occur in persons who appear on contact tracing lists and are self-isolating’.
‘The fact that the time from testing to availability of results is decreasing will make contact tracing more effective in rapidly identifying contacts and decreasing transmission from them to others in the community and the best time lapse is minutes and hours rather than days,’ he said.
Announcing the latest Test and Trace figures today, Baroness Dido Harding said: ‘As the number of cases rise, we are seeing NHS Test and Trace processing more tests and reaching more people than ever before.
‘We are expanding the reach of our service and improving performance in key areas such as turnaround times for tests as we continue to increase capacity, but we recognise there is more to be done.
‘We are working hard to meet these increased demands whilst improving the service we offer to the public.’
Test and Trace’s misfortunes began when demand for tests at the start of the academic year surged to ‘three to four times’ capacity, leading to a backlog in labs and problems securing swabs – with some told to drive 200 miles to their nearest test centre.
Next it buckled under the weight of spiking positive cases in England – despite repeated warnings that the outbreak was likely to grow when restrictions were partially relaxed – reaching a smaller proportion of contacts of those who had tested positive for five successive weeks.
Baroness Dido Harding – the former TalkTalk boss and wife of a Conservative peer who was put in charge of Test and Trace despite calls for the position to go to a medical professional – has faced mounting calls to quit over the mounting failures from both Labour and backbench Tory MPs, with one saying she should take a ‘well-earned break’ to ‘reflect on the lessons learned so far’.
Imperial report warns of 100,000 daily cases and says the outbreak is doubling every nine days — but Cambridge experts estimate the figures are 55,000 and 17 days
Confusion over the true scale of England’s second wave was sparked today as one study claimed there are now more than 100,000 new cases every day but another put the figure at only half of that.
A Government-funded study by Imperial College London estimated that 96,000 people are catching Covid-19 in England every day and that the outbreak is doubling in size every nine days, piling more pressure on ministers to act to prevent another crisis.
But research also published today by the University of Cambridge estimates that the true number of daily cases is more like 55,600 and the doubling time 17 days.
The two reports present a confusing picture, with Imperial suggesting London is the worst-hit region in England with an reproduction rate (R) of a staggering 2.86, while Cambridge suggests the capital actually has the slowest outbreak in the country, with an R of 1.04.
The ‘Nowcast’ by Cambridge University researchers estimates that around 55,000 people are catching the coronavirus every day in England
Testing by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last week suggested that there were 35,200 new cases per day in the week up to October 18, putting it closest to the Cambridge prediction. This is expected to rise again in the next report which will be published tomorrow.
Official testing by the Department of Health shows an average of 22,000 people are testing positive for Covid-19 each day across the UK, although many more people will have the disease but never get tested because they do not have any of the tell-tale symptoms.
Both teams of scientists say there are major uncertainties in their studies, which are based on statistical modelling of test results. The Cambridge estimates are a couple of weeks out of date because they’re based on deaths, while Imperial’s predictions are ‘interim’ results and may be adjusted in the coming months when combined with longer-term data.
Although the two present conflicting pictures of the outbreak, both show tens of thousands of people are getting infected every day and the epidemic is growing across the south of England, which has largely escaped any tough local lockdowns.
The University of Oxford’s Professor James Naismith, not involved with either study, said: ‘I would emphasise that taking these studies together or individually, we can be almost certain that we will see an increase in the number of deaths per day from Covid-19 over the next few weeks and each death will represent a tragedy for the families and friends left behind.’