England’s coronavirus track and trace system is not “virus beating”, is failing to give epidemiologists the data they need and its “clunky” set up is resulting in people giving up processing vital information, a government scientific adviser has claimed.
The remarks from professor John Edmunds – a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – come three months after Boris Johnson vowed to have a “world beating” system to track and isolate those who have contracted Covid-19 by 1 June.
Speaking on BBC Newsnight, professor Edmunds said: “This is the system that is supposed to be in place for us to east the restrictions – but we’ve been easing the restrictions over the last few weeks and cases are going up, so it’s clearly not taking the strain as we hoped it would do.”
Pressed on the prime minister’s claim to have a “world beating” system to tackle the transmission rate of the virus, he replied: “Honestly I couldn’t care less whether it’s world beating or not. I just wanted it to be virus beating – and it’s not.”
He added that the system is “quite clunky” and takes a considerable amount of time to get the information out of individuals about their contacts.
“They might give the initial information then start to get a bit sick of the whole process and give up,” he said. “I think that’s a problem – a problem for just collecting the data. They collect metrics about how well they are doing, the NHS test and trace, but as epidemiologists we kind of want other metrics to be measured and they are not really doing that at the moment.”
His frank assessment of the track and trace system follows a study published earlier this week, which claimed that with increased levels of testing and effective track, trace and isolate system in place “an epidemic rebound might be prevented”.
The study, published in the Lancet Child And Adolescent Health journal, analysed data from the first wave of the coronavirus and modelled the potential impact of schools across the country reopening next month in order to understand how the virus can be kept under control.
But they warned the government that reopening schools in September, alongside workplaces, without a scaled-up programme “could result in a second wave of infections between two and 2.3 times the size of the original wave”.
Writing in The Guardian, Sir Keir Starmer also urged the government to use the remainder of the summer to improve the track and system to avoid Britain facing “a long and bleak winter” with a spike in infections.
"On the occasions that the government has acted at pace, it has too often done so without a clear plan,” the Labour leader said. “Trying to get answers and clarity from the prime minister is a frustrating experience.
"His repeated refusal to accept that test and trace isn't functioning properly is a roadblock to fixing the issues and restoring public confidence."
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling of the coronavirus helped lead to the first government imposed lockdown, said there will have to be “some tightening up” of restrictions if opening schools next month raises the transmission rate.
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While he said there was a lot of evidence that primary schools and young children pose little risk of transmission, he said: “I think the concern is with secondary schools, teenagers, further education colleges and universities where the evidence is still not certain, but it looks like older teenagers can transmit just as well as adults.
"The risk then is that big schools, comprehensives, universities, FE colleges, link lots of households together, reconnect the social network which social distancing measures have deliberately disconnected. And that poses a real risk of amplification of transmission, of case numbers going up quite sharply."
He added: "In terms of the reproduction value, the 'R' value, opening high schools could increase it by as much as a half, but by as little as 0.2 or 0.3, but it will go up.
"Given we're at 'R' equal to one at the moment, clearly we don't want 'R' going up to 1.5 or so, that would ... lead to quite rapid growth of the epidemic."