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NHS Test and Trace struggling to contact all Covid infected people

The NHS Test and Trace system is not yet achieving all its objectives, with too few test results delivered within 24 hours.

Too few contacts of infected people are being reached and told to self-isolate.

These are the findings of the interim report from the National Audit Office (NAO), which acknowledges testing capacity has been increased rapidly.

NHST&T’s budget for 2020-21 has grown over time and now stands at £22 billion. Of the £15 billion of funding confirmed before the November Spending Review, around £12.8 billion (85%) is assigned to testing and £1.3 billion to tracing.

Contracts worth £7 billion have been signed with 217 public and private organisations to provide supplies, services and infrastructure, including test laboratories and call handlers for tracing.

NHST&T has plans to sign a further 154 contracts, worth £16.2 billion, by March 2021.

In total, 70% of early contracts by value were directly awarded without competition under emergency measures that were in use across government.

A range of stakeholders have queried why the government did not involve local authorities more in its initial approach to tracing, given their previous experience in this area.

NHST&T told NAO that, in the time available, the only feasible approach was to focus first on building up tracing capacity centrally.

It is important to get hold of people with COVID-19 or who might have been exposed to it quickly so they can self-isolate, but the service saw increases in the time taken to reach people between May and mid-October, before improvements in the last two weeks of October.

NHST&T did not plan for the sharp rise in testing demand in September when schools and universities reopened.

National and local government have tried to increase public engagement with tracing, but surveys suggest that the proportion of contacts fully complying with requests to self-isolate might range from 10% to 59%.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “The government has rapidly increased testing and tracing activity, building significant new infrastructure and capacity from scratch. However, it has struggled to test and trace as many people as it has capacity to, or to reach the contacts of people testing positive quickly enough.

“Test and Trace is core to the UK’s pandemic response. It must improve its performance with a focus on effective engagement with the public and integration with local efforts to improve tracing.”

Comply and isolate

NAO said NHST&T must increase its focus on compliance with self-isolation, and set out a clear strategy for how national and local tracing teams will work together.

Nuffield Trust Senior Fellow Dr Billy Palmer said: “This programme has a pivotal role to play in controlling Covid-19 and our calculations suggest it will cost the equivalent of £950 per household this year.

“Yet the latest data suggest that despite the hard work of its staff, less than one in three of recent close contacts are even asked to self-isolate, well below the level the scientific advisory group thinks is necessary to help suppress the virus.”

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One Response to “NHS Test and Trace struggling to contact all Covid infected people”

  1. Dr K B says:

    How many times has Baroness Harding and Matt Hancock been challenged on the poor performance of “Test and Trace” with multiple media hours (BBC) and media pages.
    I am reminded of the epitaph on Spike Milligan’s grave – “I told them I was ill”

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