Researchers have warned that the NHS coronavirus Test and Trace system needs to be scaled up in order to reopen schools safely.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has said that the system is working but it has been criticised for not reaching enough people who have tested positive or their close contacts.
So what is the Test and Trace service and why are scientists concerned about it?
– Why are people worried about the programme?
The authors of a new modelling study said that without appropriate levels of testing and contact tracing, reopening of schools together with gradual relaxing of the lockdown measures are “likely to induce a second wave that would peak in December 2020 if schools open full-time in September”.
The study, 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 its authors said that “with increased levels of testing… and effective contact tracing and isolation, an epidemic rebound might be prevented”.
– What is the NHS Test and Trace programme?
The programme aims to control the spread of the virus by ensuring people who have coronavirus symptoms can be tested quickly and self-isolate if found to be positive.
It will then trace people who have been in close contact with an infected person and tell them to self-isolate as well.
– How does it work?
If someone in England tests positive for Covid-19 they will be contacted by email, text or phone and asked to sign in to the contact tracing website.
They will then be asked for information including their details, anyone they live with, the places they have been recently, and the names and contact details of people they were in close contact with in the 48 hours before their symptoms started.
The NHS Test and Trace service will then contact people who have been in close contact with an infected person and tell them to isolate for 14 days from their last contact with the person.
– How well is it working?
The DHSC said on Tuesday that last week the service reached more than 80% of people who had tested positive and more than 75% of their contacts.
But one of the authors of the new study said the system currently had about 50% coverage.
Chris Bonell, professor of public health sociology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) added: “The most recent data [shows] about 81% of positives are interviewed, about 81% of those report contacts and about 75% of those contacts are reached so overall that equates to coverage of 50%.”
– What is the Government saying?
Simon Clarke, minister for regional growth and local government, said the programme was “delivering” but “there’s always more to do”.
He told Sky News that 184,000 people have so far been contacted by the programme which was “massive success”.
But Mr Clarke said that the Government was continuing to try to boost its testing capacity.
– Will schools be able to reopen as planned?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously pledged that both primary and secondary schools will return in September “with full attendance”.
Mr Clarke said that schools reopening in full in the autumn was “not up for debate”.
But Professor Graham Medley, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), has said ministers might have to consider closing pubs in England in order for lessons to start again.
He said: “It might come down to a question of which do you trade off against each other and then that’s a matter of prioritising, do we think pubs are more important than schools?”
His comments came after England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty’s suggestion that the country was “near the limit” for opening up society following the coronavirus lockdown.