The extraordinary omission from Boris Johnson’s lockdown announcement

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Rebecca Speare-Cole
·7 min read
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Watch: Boris Johnson announces new lockdown: Round Up

Boris Johnson has announced a third national lockdown for England, saying the coming weeks could be the “hardest yet” of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking during a televised statement on Monday, the prime minister echoed words he used when imposing the first national lockdown on 23 March, saying: “The government is once again instructing you to stay at home.”

The UK reported more than 50,000 daily coronavirus cases on Monday for the seventh day running while a further 407 people died, bringing the government’s official death toll to 75,431.

Hospital admissions have also passed the level of the peak last April.

During his speech, Johnson gave an overview of the new blanket restrictions imposed on England, which include a stay at home order except for essential medical need, shopping for food, exercising once a day or working if it cannot be done from home.

Read: Boris Johnson's lockdown speech in full - what he said about the new restrictions

He pointed towards the vaccine programme as the key to fighting the virus, pledging that up to 13 million people will be offered a COVID-19 vaccine by the middle of February.

Johnson said: “What we do know is that the more effective our vaccination programme, the more people who are protected in that way, the easier it will be to lift these restrictions.”

But what he completely failed to mention in his speech was the NHS Test and Trace system - once hailed by the government as the route out of England’s lockdown.

A woman walks past a coronavirus information sign on London Bridge, the morning after Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out further measures as part of a lockdown in England in a bid to halt the spread of coronavirus.
A woman walks past a coronavirus information sign on London Bridge. (PA)

The scheme, which has so far cost the government £22bn, has been beset with problems since its launch in May.

On Tuesday morning, members of Independent Sage pointed out that NHS Test and Trace was notably absent from the PM’s speech.

Dr Zubaida Haque, a member of the independent panel, tweeted: "The most worrying part of 3rd #nationallockdown is that it suggests that the government’s entire plan to get us out of this pandemic is lockdown and vaccines. There was nothing about test & trace; nothing about supporting isolation. And nothing about restricting travel #r4today.”

Stephen Reicher, a professor of psychology and a prominent critic of the government’s COVID response, also posted a series of tweets in which he warned that the vaccine should “be part of a wider strategy to suppress infection”.

Reicher said the country should not forget other elements like “a functioning test and trace system which can identify infections early, trace where it has come from and spread to and so break the chain of transmission”.

He added: “It is an enduring scandal that we still don't have such a system.”

Reicher also criticised the UK’s pandemic response as “reactive”. He said: “We have never had a comprehensive strategy to allow us to get on top of and ahead of the virus.

“Will that happen again? Will we simply see lockdown and then the government sit back and twiddle its thumbs in the hope that the vaccine will solve everything? Or, for once, will we see the strategy and the groundwork we need to suppress the infection?”

In the summer of 2020, the prime minister promised a “world beating” system that would be central to the UK’s fight against the virus.

Ahead of its launch in May, health secretary Matt Hancock stressed the importance of NHS Test and Trace to control the disease and said it would enable the government “to replace national lockdowns with individual isolation.”

He added: “NHS Test and Trace will be vital to stopping the spread of the virus. It is how we will be able to protect our friends and family from infection, and protect our NHS.”

But as the system faced a barrage of issues over the following months, Johnson and Hancock were both forced to defend it as well as reiterating its importance in preventing transmission.

Watch: Michael Gove: We should be able to start lifting restrictions in March

Responding to criticism during Prime Minister’s Questions in June, Johnson said: "What we do have is a fantastic NHS Test and Trace operation that is already up and running, that is going to get better and better, and will be indispensable to our future success."

In August, he again defended the system and stressed its importance, by saying: “That test and trace system is absolutely crucial in our ability to fight the disease and it is working.

“If you look at what we are doing with some of the local social distancing measures that we are bringing back in, that’s entirely driven by the way are able to trace cases through local test and trace, working with local authorities and taking the right local measures. And that is how we hope we will be able to keep the lid on this disease.”

But by the autumn, Sage concluded the system was having only a “marginal” effect with Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, saying that cases were now too high for the system to work.

In October, Johnson himself even admitted to his “frustration” with it, adding that he was “perfectly willing to accept the failures of test and trace”.

Heath Secretary Matt Hancock arriving in Downing Street the morning after Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out further measures as part of a lockdown in England in a bid to halt the spread of coronavirus.
Heath secretary Matt Hancock arrives at Downing Street. (PA)

And in November, Hancock tried to downplay the centrality of the system, saying: “Test and trace on its own cannot keep the virus under control. I think that mass testing does have that ability to do that in a way that testing all the symptomatic people, and then contact-tracing, finds it much harder to do.”

On Monday, NHS Test and Trace was not mentioned at all despite Johnson’s announcement coming as another landmark moment in the UK’s pandemic crisis.

Since the test and trace system launched in May, only 85% of positive cases have been reached by contact tracers, according to government figures.

A total of 16,436,384 people have been tested at least once since testing began and 1,728,898 people have tested positive for COVID-19 at least once during the same period.

Read: England's new lockdown restrictions won’t begin to ease until March, says Michael Gove

This means a massive amount of people who tested positive were not reached by contact tracers during the pandemic.

The latest data also shows that 2,398,512 people were tested at least once in England between 17 December and 23 December for COVID-19, of whom 232,169 people tested positive at least once.

Of these, 211,914 people were transferred to the contact tracing system. However, only 181,910 (85.8%) of these were reached by contact tracers.

This means 30,004 people (14.1%) who tested positive were not reached and only a small proportion of this was due to no contact details being provided.

While the number of people tested and the number transferred to the system had increased compared to the previous week, the proportion of people who were reached went down from 88.6%.

Watch: All you need to know about the new national lockdown