Ministers needs to completely rethink their entire coronavirus test and trace strategy, a committee of top experts has warned, as the government admitted the R rate could be again rising above one.
Independent Sage, which was set up amid concerns about political interference on the government’s official advisory committee, said the centralised testing system “basically just isn’t good enough” after nine weeks in operation and showing no signs of improvement.
Local authorities have been sounding the alarm over the system, with Blackburn with Darwen council in Lancashire going as far as to set up its own scheme to plug gaps left by the national effort. Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham warned on Friday that the system was “not good enough” and hampering efforts to control the virus in his city.
Independent Sage said a vastly improved test and trace system was needed to safely reopen schools and businesses in the autumn. Its experts are calling for resources to be redirected to support local systems, citing evidence that more localised approaches both in the UK and in countries such as Germany and South Korea were producing much better results.
“We believe it’s time to rethink the whole test and trace system,” Christina Pagel, director of clinical operational research at University College London, told journalists at a briefing on Friday.
“We’ve had the central system now for nine weeks, we’ve been following it, it hasn’t got any better … we think it’s time to invest those resources instead in local structures which are already being developed in some areas of England and the devolved nations.”
The warning comes after The Independent revealed leaked analysis last month showing that the test and trace system was failing to reach more than half of contacts named by infected people in areas battling acute outbreaks. The latest statistics show the scheme is still yet to improve, with around 53 per cent of contacts being reached by the national system.
Anthony Costello, a former director of the Institute for Global Health at University College London who sits on the committee, said the evidence was clear that a local approach would yield better results.
“The local tracing figures are absolutely clear: we saw the complex cases … basically [those] locally chased by Public Health England’s health protection teams, they get 99 per cent, the central call centres get 53 per cent. It’s a huge difference,” he said.
The professor added: “You cannot do this centrally. We’re aiming to open our schools and protect our economy, that’s why we’ve been banging on about find, test, trace, isolate, support for the last six months.
“What [the government] is thinking at the moment is almost impossible to fathom – they don’t seem to be listening to Sage [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] and as Sir Paul Nurse [director of the Francis Crick Institute] has said repeatedly on the BBC, who’s in charge? We don’t seem to really know who’s in charge.”
Professor Costello suggested that the government’s approach was a symptom of the “British disease that we don’t devolve power to localities” as elsewhere in Europe.
The latest estimates from the government suggest the R reproduction rate of Covid-19 is above 1 and thus spreading in London, the northwest and the southwest.
Dr Zubaida Haque, the director of the Runnymede Trust, who also sits on Independent Sage, said the government’s decision to go with a centralised system was “baffling”.
Mr Burnham told the BBC that people who were contacted and asked to self-isolate felt that they were financially unable to do so, and that the government also needed to address this if it wanted its system to be effective.
“A number of people in our poorer communities are finding it very, very hard to agree to a request to take 14 days off work when they know they won’t be paid, or worse, they will lose their job. And this of course particularly affects people who are self-employed, or who are on zero hours contracts.”
He added: “I think we need to do something here that’s akin to jury service, you know, when you get a request to serve on a jury you’re being asked to fulfil your public duty, and a request from NHS Test and Trace is similar because it’s in the wider good of the local community that you take that time off work. So it shouldn’t be that people are being kind of prevented from doing so by financial worries or worries about their job.”
Independent Sage said the latest figures showed there had been an up-tick in infections in the community in recent weeks that could not entirely be accounted for by increased testing.
It comes as the government imposes a new local lockdown on Preston from midnight on Friday, after a spike in the number of coronavirus cases.
New restrictions will ban households in the city from meeting indoors or in gardens. The city had been braced for the announcement since a rise in Covid-19 cases was confirmed last week.
Ministers also confirmed that the current restrictions on gatherings in Greater Manchester, Leicester, parts of west Yorkshire and east Lancashire will remain in place. Wider restrictions in Leicester, Blackburn and Bradford will also continue.