England tracing scheme reports new low proportion of COVID contacts reached

LONDON (Reuters) - The proportion of contacts of COVID-19 cases reached by England’s test and trace scheme fell to a record low of 62.6% in the latest week, health ministry statistics revealed on Thursday, intensifying criticism of the misfiring system.

FILE PHOTO: A member of medical staff takes a swab from a person in a car at an NHS coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing facility, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Wolverhampton, Britain, April 7, 2020. To match Special Report HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/BRITAIN-TRACING REUTERS/Carl Recine

The figure falls well short of a target of reaching 80% of contacts and comes after an error delayed some tracing in the previous week.

Asked about the record low proportion of contacts reached, health minister Matt Hancock cited unprecedented numbers of people being contacted through the system, though that comes as prevalence of the disease rises.

“Of course we want to make sure that we get things even faster and we have an even greater testing capacity,” Hancock told lawmakers.

Weekly statistics showed 87,918 people were transferred to the contact tracing system between Oct 1 and Oct 7, including around 11,000 cases delayed from an earlier reporting period by a technical problem.

Of those transferred, 76.8% were reached and asked to give details of their contacts. Although the 216,627 people identified as contacts of those cases was double the previous week, only 62.6% were reached, a record low proportion.

Government scientists admit that the test and trace system works less well when prevalence is high, casting doubt on the government’s strategy of local lockdowns to contain outbreaks through test and trace.

Opposition Labour health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth said the figures equated to 81,000 people circulating in society having been exposed to the virus, and said test and trace was “only getting worse.”

The weekly statistics showed a 64% increase in cases in the latest week, and also an increase in positive results among people tested.

“Simply looking at the increase in the number of cases, is proof that the system has not succeeded,” Professor James Naismith of University of Oxford, said.

Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Michael Holden and Stephen Addison