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Test and Trace is getting WORSE: Number of contacts of coronavirus patients drops again to 72.4% 

NHS Test and Trace is getting worse at tracking down contacts of infected Covid-19 patients, the government today admitted amid mounting pressure to improve the system before the winter.

Data shows that 72.4 per cent of close contacts were reached by NHS call handlers in the week ending July 29 — down from 76.2 per cent during the previous seven-day spell. The figure has now dropped for two weeks in a row.

The Department of Health’s report on the statistics said: ‘The overall percentage of contacts reached has been declining since Test and Trace began.’

Labour said it was ‘deeply concerning’ that the numbers are heading in the ‘wrong direction’, calling for ministers to address ‘huge holes in the contact tracing system’.

But Boris Johnson repeated his claim that the NHS Test and Trace system was ‘world beating’ — even though ministers have accepted the struggling operation must improve amid fears of a catastrophic second Covid-19 wave this winter. 

It comes as cold callers were today blamed for failures in the service because people do not want to answer ‘unrecognisable’ 0300 numbers.

And it was revealed ministers will finally unveil the long-awaited and long-delayed coronavirus phone app as early as this month — but the scaled-back software will not be used for contact tracing as originally planned. 

Today’s report from the Department of Health and Social Care showed 19,150 people were identified as close contacts during the week ending July 29. 

But the proportion of close contacts who are successfully being reached and told to self isolate has dropped from 90.7 per cent in week one.  

Ministers claimed the drop was ‘primarily due to the reduction in contacts relating to local outbreaks’, which are known as ‘complex cases’. They are managed by local health chiefs who have ‘a higher success rate than those dealt with by contact tracers,’ the report said.

The figures come after Local government minister Simon Clarke conceded there is ‘more to do’ on bolstering the contact tracing scheme.

His comments came after a major study warned a resurgence of the disease could be twice as bad as that in the Spring, unless the system improves.

Scientists from University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said the only way of bringing back schools and avoiding another crisis around Christmas was to ramp up dramatically the operation.

Mr Johnson today repeated his claim that the NHS Test and Trace system was ‘world beating’ — despite the figures showing it is getting worse. 

He said: ‘If you look at what we are doing, actually I think it certainly is — it certainly does fit that description of “world beating”.

‘I think I’m right in saying that we are now testing more – per head of population — than virtually any other country in Europe, certainly, in America they are testing a huge number of people.’ 

He said the test and trace system was ‘absolutely crucial’ for the Government’s coronavirus strategy.

‘If you look at what we are doing with some of the local social distancing measures that we are bringing back in, that’s entirely driven by our ability to detect cases through local test and trace, working with our local authorities and taking the right local measures.

‘That is how we hope that we will be able to keep the lid on the disease.’ 

Justin Madders, Shadow Health Minister, said: ‘It’s deeply concerning the numbers are heading in the wrong direction again this week, with so many of the close contacts of people who have tested positive, and over 40 per cent of people in the same households, not being reached.

‘We now need a plan of action from Ministers that sets out what they are doing to address these huge holes in the contact tracing system.

‘If this means supporting local areas to establish their own local contact tracing systems and ending the failed contract with Serco – as Labour has been calling for, for some time – then Ministers must get on and implement this without delay. 

‘We urgently need to get test and trace back on track.’

Data also showed local health teams have been more successful than call centre workers because they are able to try alternative ways of contacting people, for example knocking on doors.

Over the past nine weeks, 98 per cent of close contacts of people who tested positive for Covid-19 have been reached and asked to self-isolate by local health protection teams.

By contrast, for those cases handled either online or by call centres, 56.1 per cent of close contacts have been reached.   

Reports have suggested that some contact tracers working for the NHS Test and Trace programme in England are making just a handful of calls a month. 

Some councils have taken matters into their own hands and launched local contact-tracing operations to supplement the national system. 

Calderdale Council, which covers Halifax and surrounding areas, is the second authority to make the move after Blackburn and Darwen said it was setting up a locally focused system to utilise community knowledge. 

But senior officials insist that the Test and Trace programme is not at odds with local systems, and is working in partnership with local authorities and their local health protection teams. 

The Department of Health figures released today — which only cover England — also revealed turnaround times have also dipped since the record high at the start of July.

Around three in four people (77.9 per cent) who had a so-called ‘in person’ Covid-19 test in the week ending July 29 received their result within the 24 hour target.

It’s up from the 76.4 per cent in the previous week but down on 90.8 per cent in the week to July 1.

The PM had pledged that, by the end of June, the results of 100 per cent of all in-person tests would be back within 24 hours.

Experts say getting test results fast and carrying out contact tracing immediately is vital to stopping the spread of coronavirus because there is only a short window to alert people that they are at risk of infecting others without yet knowing they’re ill.  

There have been concerns that both testing and tracing is not robust enough in the UK to prevent a second wave occurring this winter. 

This week scientists said that without appropriate levels of testing and contact tracing, the reopening of schools in September together with gradual relaxing of the lockdown measures are ‘likely to induce a second wave that would peak in December 2020’.  

The study by researchers from UCL and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), published in The Lancet Child And Adolescent Health, warned that in a worst-case scenario a second wave could be 2.3 times higher than the first. 

But it could be avoided — with pubs remaining open and no draconian lockdowns needed — if testing is dramatically ramped up and the contact tracing system becomes better. 

Three quarters of people with Covid-19 would need to be tested and self-isolate to prevent a second wave caused by schools reopening.

Experts found that, to prevent a second wave when schools reopen, the NHS contact tracing system must reach 68 per cent of cases and their contacts.  

But the current NHS system is ‘not good enough’. It reaches half of contacts and only a fraction of symptomatic cases are tested, according to the researchers.

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