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What happened to our ‘world-beating’ coronavirus test, track and trace system?

By Ryan Hooper, PA
·6-min read

It is almost four months since Boris Johnson told MPs the Government’s test, track and trace operation would be “world-beating”.

But facing the Commons Liaison Committee on Wednesday, the Prime Minister was forced to acknowledge the situation was not “ideal” as demand was vastly outstripping capacity.

He was left with little choice. Across the country, people have described being told to travel hundreds of miles to get their children tested.

Coronavirus – Wed Sep 16, 2020
Boris Johnson gives evidence to the Commons Liaison Committee (House of Commons/PA)

There are reports that laboratories have been overwhelmed by a surge in swabs.

Far from being the envy of the world, Labour’s Wes Streeting told Health Secretary Matt Hancock in the Commons this week the system was “a bloody mess”.

Here are some of the key questions surrounding the issue:

– There were big hopes for the Government’s test, track and trace system – what went wrong?

There was much hype around the UK’s coronavirus response, the source of which, on May 20, was the Prime Minister himself.

He told the Commons: “We will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating, and yes, it will be in place – it will be in place by June 1.”

As that short deadline came around, reports emerged of a failure to reach those whose recent contacts had experienced coronavirus symptoms, while call centre contact tracers were left with so little work they were essentially “paid to watch Netflix”.

The system has repeatedly failed to meet the Government’s target of reaching 80% of close contacts of people who have tested positive for coronavirus.

Mobile test centres were set up, including in hotspot areas. People keen to avoid quarantine by proving themselves virus-free swamped the sites.

The Government had stopped widespread community testing on March 12, a week and a half before lockdown measures were introduced, due to capacity being overwhelmed.

And this week, the Prime Minister reiterated plans to prioritise who should be able to get a test – meaning even those with symptoms may still not be able to get a test – amid claims from Mr Hancock that “inappropriate” use of the system by those without symptoms was making it harder for genuine potential carriers to get tested.

PHE replacement
Matt Hancock (Jonathan Brady/PA)

All the while, whole school year groups, frontline workers and families were forced to isolate due to being unable to get a test.

– What is being done to address the issue?

Mr Johnson admitted the problems with the system on Wednesday, telling MPs on the Liaison Committee: “We don’t have enough testing capacity now because, in an ideal world, I would like to test absolutely everybody that wants a test immediately.”

So the Government is looking at other ways of trying to halt the spread of coronavirus.

It includes strict new measures in Covid-19 hotspots, such as parts of the north of England, while a short-term lockdown has already been announced for Rhondda Cynon Taf in south Wales.

HEALTH Coronavirus Wales
(PA Graphics)

Ministers are considering plans to limit social gatherings, including a possible 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants, on top of the “rule of six” restriction on get-togethers announced this week.

The need for action was outlined by Adam Kucharski, a scientist and government adviser, who warned the shortage of testing capacity is affecting the ability of authorities to track the spread of the disease, meaning more severe restrictions may have to be brought in.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “I think we are getting to the point where potentially we are losing our ability to accurately track the virus.

“That means that we could have a situation where it is getting into risk groups, we start to see more cases appear and we don’t have good warning of that.

“It also affects our ability to have more targeted, nuanced measures. If we lose the ability to track the virus it ends up that more blunt tools will be deployed. That is what we saw earlier in the year.”

– So who should be getting a test?

Easy – the Government says anyone with symptoms. The Health Secretary said this week that there are “operational challenges” with testing but the Government is “working hard” to fix them.

He also insisted the average distance travelled to a test site is now 5.8 miles, adding it is “inevitable” that demand rises when a “free service” is available.

The Government is drawing up plans to prioritise who should get a test, starting with people who have acute clinical need and those in social care settings.

Mr Hancock last week said there had been an increase in demand among people not eligible for tests in recent weeks, but there no data to support this.

– What about people in the worst-affected areas – can they get a test?

A negative test result can bring an end to self-isolation for those thinking they may have coronavirus, so it is little wonder that people have been clamouring to get tested.

It means those in quarantine should be able to return to work, school, or go on holiday – at least, it lets them leave their home.

One of the problems, however, has been the lack of testing capacity – particularly underlined in areas where coronavirus is most prevalent.

Research by the PA news agency this week identified that testing slots were offered in only one of the 10 local authorities with the highest Covid-19 infection rates.

NHS Providers, which represents NHS trust leaders, expressed concerns that shortages were leading to an increase in people attending accident and emergency units requesting a test – something hospital bosses have urged people not to do.

Coronavirus – Wed Sep 16, 2020
Staff hand out self-test kits at a testing centre in Bolton (Danny Lawson/PA)

– So what is the Government’s message on those wanting to get tested?

Mr Hancock last week appeared to blame people without symptoms seeking tests for the squeeze on resources.

The Department of Health and Social Care also appealed to those without symptoms not to get a test.

That is despite official Government guidance published the previous month – and still available online – that says testing people who do not have symptoms can have “useful public health benefits” to detect cases before people enter a high-risk setting such as health or social care, and “where there is strong reason to believe there is a high level of coronavirus present in the relevant setting”.

It also says testing asymptomatic people “is not currently seen as an effective way to screen the general population outside of outbreaks”.