Extent of virus tracing capabilities revealed

Contact tracing appeared to have been paused as a strategy in March.

A person on the NHS coronavirus contact tracing app, which Isle of Wight residents have been getting their hands on
A person on the NHS coronavirus contact tracing app, which Isle of Wight residents have been getting their hands on

Widespread testing and contact tracing of coronavirus patients was stopped after it was revealed Public Health England only had the capacity to deal with five people a week.

The detail, revealed in papers from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), shows PHE could increase this capacity to 50 new cases a week but that this would require “stress testing”.

The minutes are from a meeting held by the group which advises the Government on February 18, and two days later it was agreed PHE’s proposed plans for discontinuing contact tracing were “sensible”.

Contact tracing – which aims to cut off routes of transmission for the virus and control local flare-ups – was used in the early stages of the crisis when the number of cases was lower.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson changed tack on March 12, announcing that anyone with symptoms, however mild, such as a continuous cough or high temperature, must stay at home for seven days.

The minutes from Sage said: “Currently PHE can cope with five new cases a week (requiring isolation of 800 contacts).

“Modelling suggests this capacity could be increased to 50 new cases a week (8,000 contact isolations) but this assumption needs to be stress tested with PHE operational colleagues.

“When there is sustained transmission in the UK, contact tracing will no longer be useful.”

This tipping point appears to have been reached in March, when lockdown measures began.

Coronavirus-related deaths in hospitals in England
Coronavirus-related deaths in hospitals in England (PA Graphics)

Earlier this week, the Government’s testing co-ordinator Professor John Newton told MPs the testing plans were abandoned after a million cases of Covid-19 were predicted across the UK, and that the decision was taken by ministers.

He said: “The advice from modellers was that within a short period we would expect to be having a million cases in the UK, and of course if you have a million cases there’s no way, however much contact tracing or testing capacity you have, that you can pursue the South Korea model.

“At that point, the Government made the decision to move to lockdown as the most appropriate response to the epidemiology in the UK at the time.”

Testing and tracing – seen as key to easing lockdown restrictions – is now being rolled out across England with the help of 25,000 contact tracers.

But concerns have been raised about the system, and the chief executive of NHS Providers said the country is “weeks behind” where it should be.

Chris Hopson added there was “still a long way to go to create the fit for purpose regime we need.”

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