NHS Test and Trace is vital in the fight against coronavirus – but it’s not working.
Now the long-awaited Covid-19 app has finally arrived, we take a look at what’s gone wrong with the system that aims to reduce the spread of coronavirus.
It’s not testing enough
The UK’s Pillar 1 testing for hospital inpatients and health and care workers, for which results are analysed at NHS and Public Health England labs, appears to be meeting demand. The problem lies with Pillar 2 testing, which focuses on testing people in the community – at local drive-in and walk-in sites.
In recent weeks stories have abounded of people unable to access tests, being told there are no appointments available at centres in England and no home tests kits available either. In some cases people were told to travel hundreds of miles and wait in long queues at testing sites.
One whistleblower told HuffPost UK they were working at a testing centre where work was running at a fraction of capacity, saying: “We’re supposed to turn people around and say we’re too busy, but we’re not busy.”
Last week it was revealed up to three quarters of a million Covid test requests are going unanswered every day.
Government statistics published last week said 25% of people getting Covid tests between September 8 and 14 had to travel thirteen miles or more, with 5% having to travel 47 miles or more to get tested.
Dido Harding, chair of NHS Test and Trace, has defended testing failures by saying there was an “unexpected” surge in demand, with many people without symptoms said to be seeking checks.
It’s not quick enough
A fast turnaround for test results is crucial to tackling the spread of Covid-19. The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has stressed the importance of delivering rapid test results, ideally within 24 hours.
Boris Johnson has previously told parliament that he wanted a 100% completion rate by the end of June, but that ambition has never been met.
Latest official figures showed that between September 10 and 16 just one in 10 Covid tests met the PM’s own target of being completed within 24 hours.
The median time taken to receive a test result at regional test sites increased to 30 hours from 27 hours in the previous week. Similarly, mobile testing units increased to 31 hours up from 26 hours. Times for results from local test sites decreased slightly to 34 hours from 35 hours during the same period.
Crucially, the total number of test results processed decreased by 19% compared to the previous week.
Government insiders have said this was more about results taking longer to be communicated to people, rather than a fall in tests being processed.
It isn’t tracing
At the centre of all the concerns surrounding NHS Test and Trace are questions about how many people are actually being reached by contact tracers.
Figures from just two weeks ago showed just 69.2% of those “close contacts” – defined as being within two metres of a Covid carrier for more than 15 minutes – are actually being reached.
The PM’s independent scientific advisers have repeatedly warned that stopping the spread of the disease requires more than 80% of “close contacts” of people with Covid reached by the system to be identified and then told to self-isolate.
The statistics for the week up to September 2 were the lowest weekly percentage since the service launched in May.
Latest figures show the percentage of “close contacts” of those who test positive edged up 73.9% to 74.7% – but is still well short of the 80% that experts say is needed to make the service viable.
The public doesn’t trust it
As we’ve already mentioned, at least seven million people will need to download the new NHS Test and Trace Covid app for it to start reducing the spread of the virus.
Considering there are 49 million people over the age of 16 eligible to use the app in England and Wales, that would mean a minimum of 15% of the population need to install the app for it to make any “meaningful impact” on the reproduction or R rate of the virus.
This could be a challenging task. Social media is currently awash with people voicing concerns and refusing to download the app because they’re concerned about their data and privacy regarding the NHS Test and Trace Covid-19 app. But here’s why those privacy concerns are overblown.
There has also been widespread public anger over ministers and government officials breaching Covid lockdown restrictions, reinforcing the “one rule for them, another for everyone else” argument as the rest of the country toes the line.
Just this week Tory MP Danny Kruger was caught out by a member of the public travelling unmasked for the entire duration of an hour-long train journey, later claiming he “quite simply forgot”.
And of course there was the time the PM’s chief aide Dominic Cummings visited Barnard Castle with his wife and son to test his “eyesight” having travelled from London to Durham at the height of the pandemic.