Boris Johnson and his chief scientific adviser have admitted to failings in England’s £12bn test-and-trace system as contact-tracing fell to a new low and waiting times for test results soared to almost double the target.
Under pressure to explain new figures showing less than 60% of close contacts being reached, while test turnaround times rose to nearly 48 hours, the prime minister said: “I share people’s frustrations and I understand totally why we do need to see faster turnaround times and we need to improve it.”
The system, designed to contain outbreaks by ensuring anyone exposed to the virus self-isolates, was helping “a bit”, Johnson added. “The thing depends on people self-isolating and breaking the transmission. It is helping a bit already to break the transmission. About 1m contacts have been reached. But there is more that it can do if everybody complies once they are contacted by NHS Test and Trace.”
Alongside him at a Downing Street press conference, Sir Patrick Vallance said problems with test and trace were in part inevitable as coronavirus cases rose in the second wave – but also a result of the system’s operation. They were “diminishing its effectiveness”, he said.
Another expert said test and trace was “struggling to make any difference to the pandemic”.
In the week ending 14 October, 59.6% of close contacts were reached, down from the previous week’s figure of 62.6%, which was the lowest since the test-and-trace operation was launched at the end of May.
Sage said in May that at least 80% of contacts must be reached for the system, described as “world-beating” by the government, to be effective. Documents published last week show Sage considers its success to be “marginal”.
In fact the true proportion of contacts of Covid patients reached is lower still: the latest report reveals 101,494 people tested positive but only 96,521 were transferred to the contact-tracing system, of whom just over 80% were reached and asked to provide information about their contacts. That means, overall, only 46% of close contacts were reached.
The latest performance statistics, published on Thursday, also showed Boris Johnson is further from delivering on his pledge that the results of all in-person tests will be returned within 24 hours.
The median time taken to receive a test result at regional sites rose to 45 hours, from 28 the previous week. Local test site result times increased to 47 hours from 29, and mobile test units rose to 41 hours from 26.
Vallance told a Downing Street press conference on Thursday: “It’s really important to concentrate on numbers of contacts [and] isolation as quickly as you can and getting things back as quickly as you can, ideally to get the whole process done within 48 hours. And it’s very clear there’s room