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Covid-19: UK test and trace system still missing 80% target for reaching contacts

BMJ 2020; 370 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m2875 (Published 17 July 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;370:m2875

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  1. Adrian O’Dowd
  1. London, UK

More than a fifth of people in England who tested positive for covid-19 in the most recent week measured were not reached by the NHS’s test and trace programme, latest figure show.1

Although the head of the programme said there were “sustained improvements” in how it was performing, the figures for the week of 2 to 8 July showed that 21% of the 3579 people who tested positive for covid-19 and whose details were passed to the contact tracing system were not found.

The majority (79%), however, were reached and of those 2815 people, 2201 provided details of one or more recent contacts. This meant that 13 807 people were identified as close contacts who may have been exposed to the virus, but only 9811 of them (71%) were reached and asked to self-isolate. This is well below the 80% target for tracing close contacts recommended by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

The test and trace system began on 28 May and has around 27 000 contact tracers. The government was criticised recently2 after disclosing that it had spent £10bn (€11bn; $13bn) on the programme.

Overall, fewer people are testing positive for covid-19 as the prevalence of the virus slowly declines. The latest statistics, covering the sixth week of the test and trace programme, showed that over the whole period, it had reached 155 889 people who may have otherwise unknowingly spread the virus to others and asked them to self-isolate.

The speed of testing has increased, with 96% of in-person test results being received the day after the test was taken at regional testing sites and mobile testing units.

The government said efforts were being made to make the service more accessible, by offering translation services in more than 200 languages.

There are also plans to set up more walk-in testing sites, and work with behavioural scientists to find ways of engaging the public to make greater use of the service is ongoing.

From 16 July, the programme will publish data on a smaller scale for population groups of between 5000 and 15 000 people, so that a person can see the statistics for their own town or village. And data will move from weekly to daily publication in the future.

Dido Harding, executive chair of NHS Test and Trace, said, “Each week there have been sustained improvements to reach more people and help stop those who may have been in contact with the virus unknowingly passing it on.

“We have made testing and tracing quicker and more accessible, and we remain committed to develop the service further over the coming months.”

Layla McCay, a director at the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS organisations, said, “It’s heartening to see there has been a slight improvement in the percentage of people reached who had their case transferred to the contact tracing system—but there is still more work to do, as the scheme is still not reaching the 80% target.”

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