Contacts of coronavirus sufferers can't be reached as people 'can't remember or don't know' who they've seen

Andy Wells
·Freelance Writer
·5-min read
Shoppers walk past a screen on a bus stop displaying a NHS notice on test and trace on Oxford Street, London, as non-essential shops in England open their doors to customers for the first time since coronavirus lockdown restrictions were imposed in March. Picture date: Monday June 15, 2020.
Shoppers walk past a screen on a bus stop displaying a NHS notice on test and trace on Oxford Street, London. (PA)

A fifth of people who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus can’t be reached by Test and Trace because sufferers don’t know their details, according to one testing boss.

Rupert Soames, chief executive of Serco, which is among several firms that are recruiting, coaching and managing contact tracers, defended the fact that 10,000 contact tracers have only spoken to an average of 2.4 people each, after Test and Trace launched at the end of May.

When asked on why tracers are still only managing to get hold of half of people's contacts, Soames said that “96% of the people that we talk to agree to self-isolate”.

However, when pushed on the issue, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: "If somebody rang you now and I said: 'Tell me everybody that you have met, been in contact with, in the last 48 hours, and tell me on the telephone, give me their contact details', how many do you think that you'd be able to reel off of the top of your head?

"And the fact is that about 20% of the contacts that people give us say: 'I know I sat next to somebody on a bus on the way in but I don't have their contact details. I'm sorry, but my brother-in-law brought around a friend last night, I don't have their contact details.’

Rupert Soames, CEO of Serco, attends the departure ceremony of the first freight train to transport goods from the UK to Yiwu in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, from DP World London Gateway's rail freight depot in Corringham, east of London, on April 10, 2017. The first freight train from Britain to China departed from DP World London Gateway's freight terminal Monday, on an 18-day, 12,000-kilometre (7,450-mile) intercontinental journey to Jiwu in China. London is the 15th city to be linked to a new freight network offered by the state-run China Railway Corporation, which is billed as cheaper than air transport and quicker than shipping. / AFP PHOTO / Isabel Infantes        (Photo credit should read ISABEL INFANTES/AFP via Getty Images)
Rupert Soames, CEO of Serco, defended the Test and Trace programme. (Getty)

"So there is an element of that, and it is about 20% at the moment where people can't remember or never knew the contact... the details of where they were.”

His comment come as the efficiency of the Test and Trace Programme has been called into question after scientists described the current system as “inadequate”.

Professor Chris Bonell, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that “it doesn't look good enough to me”, while Dr Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths, from UCL, added: "With UK schools reopening fully in September, prevention of a second wave will require a major scale-up of testing to test 75% of symptomatic infections – combined with tracing of 68% of their contacts, and isolation of symptomatic and diagnosed cases."

NHS England's Test and Trace system, which is being led by Baroness Dido Harding, relies on identifying people who have been in contact with a positive case and getting them to self-isolate.

Figures from the Department of Health and Social Care released on Thursday show a total of 47,762 people who tested positive for COVID-19 in England have had their cases transferred to the NHS Test and Trace contact tracing system – which Boris Johnson said would be "world beating" – since its launch.

Of this total, 37,231 people (78.0%) were reached and asked to provide details of recent contacts, while 9,032 (18.9%) were not reached.

A further 1,499 people (3.1%) could not be reached because their communication details had not been provided.

The system reached 79.4% of the 4,642 infected people it was asked to trace in the most recent week – down from 81.4% in the previous week.

That figure is lower than the 80% of contacts recommended by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to be traced if the spread of coronavirus is to be slowed.

While Test and Trace has been lauded as a system to stop the spread of coronavirus, statistics only account for people who have tested positive for the virus – with the real number of infections thought to be far higher, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to local people at the Canal Side Heritage Centre in Beeston near Nottingham, England, Tuesday, July 28, 2020. The government is launching a new cycling intuitive to help get people fitter. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira, Pool)
Boris Johnson said the Test and Trace system would be 'world beating'. (AP)

Schools minister Nick Gibb has previously hailed the success of the programme, claiming that 330,000 people were being tested every day.

However, recent Test and Trace data showed that 366,397 people were newly tested in the week that ended on 22 July – an average of roughly 52,000 every day, according to Full Fact.

A spokesperson later said that Gibb “unintentionally misspoke” and said “he should have said ‘we are able to test…’”.

Serco is among several firms that are recruiting, coaching and managing contact tracers, and Soames admitted that the Test and Trace system has "more capacity than we need" but said the government "had to start somewhere".

Experts have warned that the NHS Test and Trace system must rapidly improve to cope with the pressures expected once schools fully return in September and as winter approaches.

The Department of Health and Social Care has defended the record of the system.

"In just eight weeks, NHS Test and Trace has tested more than 2.6 million people for coronavirus and contacted more than 218,000 people who have tested positive for the virus, or recently been in contact with someone who has tested positive – in order to break the chain of transmission," a spokesman said.

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