Contacts of Covid-19 patients are 'blocking' test and trace

Contacts of Covid cases are ‘blocking’ test and trace phone numbers after getting ‘repeated calls’ as expert says bungling system ‘hasn’t been effective at all’

  • Anonymous contact tracer said Britons are getting ‘frustrated’ by the system
  • He warned ‘people are blocking the number’ in response to the barrage of calls
  • Latest figures show system failed to reach 131,200 contacts of positive cases 

Britons are ignoring calls from test and trace and blocking its number because they are being bombarded, a contact tracer claimed today.

When someone tests positive for the coronavirus they are asked to provide a list of their contacts – family, friends and colleagues they were near for at least 15 minutes – for the system to ring and tell to self-isolate.

But when there are outbreaks in particular settings – such as in schools, offices, or care homes – the same contact is put down by several different people who have tested positive, meaning they face a barrage of calls from the service.

A contact tracer who wished to remain anonymous revealed the staggering official oversight on BBC Radio 4, saying bosses urgently need to find a way to merge the same person into a single contact.

The latest figures for Test and Trace, published yesterday, reveal 131,200 contacts of people who tested positive for Covid were not reached in the week ending October 28. 

Only 24 per cent of contacts were reached within 24 hours of them being identified, according to the Department of Health system. 

Top experts have repeatedly lampooned the system for repeatedly failing to advise tens of thousands of contacts to isolate, with one Oxford University expert claiming today it ‘hasn’t been effective at all’ in breaking the Covid-19 chain of transmission.

In the latest drive to get the virus under control, the Government has launched a mass testing programme in Liverpool aiming to get the city’s entire 500,000 population checked for the virus at least once a week. 

Test and Trace is failing to reach a large proportion of contacts of people who have tested positive for the virus because they are not picking up their phones

The latest figures, for October 22 to 28, reveal Test and Trace failed to reach more than 100,000 contacts. This means many continued circulating in the community after being exposed to the virus, further spreading the infections

Hundreds queued in their cars outside testing centres in Liverpool today as the city kick’s off the UK’s first city-wide testing scheme.

The entire population of the 500,000-strong city will be tested as part of an Operation Moonshot pilot that, if successful, will be rolled out in other parts of the UK.

Officials are aiming to provide a test to everyone in Liverpool at least once a week, in an attempt to map the actual spread of the virus and pick up asymptomatic cases.

Soldiers were drafted in to support the national effort and were yesterday seen setting up base in Southport.

Rapid tests that give results in less than an hour will be used in the trial, alongside normal PCR swabs used in centres across the country.

Liverpool faced some of the worst impacts of England’s second wave of coronavirus, with hospitals in the city seeing patient numbers surge in recent weeks. 

A contact tracer told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that NHS Test and Trace – as it is officially known – is still failing to get hold of people who have been near someone who tested positive for the virus because ‘a majority of calls go unanswered’.

‘People are blocking the number,’ he said. ‘And that may account for why so many people are not reached, because they’re not answering their phone and they’re not responding to the emails.’

Giving an example of why Britons may get frustrated when being contacted by the system, he said: ‘For example, several of your colleagues in the BBC test positive, they all name you as a contact.

‘(Then) you potentially end up being called ten times because these ten people have named you and that for me is just totally bizarre.

‘And that’s what alienates people. Some people, because they’re called so many times and they get left so many voicemail messages, when you get hold of them you sometimes get abuse.’

After viewing yesterday’s figures on contact tracing, Professor James Naismith a biologist from the University of Oxford warned NHS Test and Trace is ‘not meaningfully impacting upon the disease’.

‘I note that the positivity rate in pillar 2 has gone above 10 per cent. Pillar 2 is testing the wider community,’ he said.

‘At above five per cent, then daily test numbers run an increasing risk of underestimating the growth of the virus.’

Professor Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, warned the percentage of contacts reached is ‘still not high enough’.

‘If it takes more than 24 hours for a contact to be reached, after the original case is transferred to the contact tracers, an infected contact might be out in the community, potentially passing the infection on further, before the contact even knows they might be infected.

‘That’s because the contact might have met the original case a couple of days before the original case had symptoms and asked for a test (because people can be infectious before they have symptoms).

Test and Trace call handlers continued to reach proportionally fewer contacts than local health protection teams because they rely on telephone calls and emails

Professor James Naismith, a biologist from  the University of Oxford

‘Then another day or more might pass between the original person booking a test and getting the result, and only after the result is available can the case be passed to the tracers.

‘So it could be easily three days after the contact met the case before the case can even be passed on to the contact tracers.

‘Therefore, if it takes too long between the case being passed to the tracers and the contacts being reached, and if a contact was infected, they could have been walking round infecting others for a couple of days before they have even been told that they might be infected.’

SAGE has previously stated at least 80 per cent of all contacts have to be reached for the Test and Trace system to have a meaningful impact.

But the continuing surge in the number of cases and contacts identified means the system has failed to catch up – and faced a continual blasting from ministers. 

Some scientists even suggested its abysmal performance should lead to a second national lockdown, to get cases under enough control for it to be able to manage the disease.

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