The clock was ticking on the Prime Minister’s pledge as a top adviser to the Scottish Government said it could be a “big gamble” to relax restrictions if the new test and trace system was not properly up and running. Writing in today’s Evening Standard, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was hearing of coronavirus test results taking two days on average and warned: “In many cases it can take much longer.”
Warning “we need to massively speed up the turnaround of tests”, he said it could take five days from requesting a test to getting a result.
To cut the overall time to less than three days “we need 24-hour turnaround of tests”, which the Prime Minister has agreed to deliver but not yet set a date for, Mr Hunt added. “The Prime Minister has promised us a ‘world beating’ test and trace system — but we won’t deliver that if our tests take twice as long to process as the best places in the world,” he said.
One of the ministers in charge, Lord Bethell, stressed that “incredible” progress had been made in the race to set up the new system, with a 25,000-strong army of contact tracers having been recruited. However, he conceded that yesterday’s nationwide launch was “not perfect”, following reports of people being unable to login to the system to report infections and get a test.
The peer, minister of innovation at the Department of Health and Social Care, tweeted: “Progress is incredible. We’ve moved quickly to stand up huge T-and-T programme, so all not perfect. We’re snagging loose ends. But v proud of our public and private partners.”
Environment Secretary George Eustice admitted he does not know how many people were contacted by the scheme yesterday. He told BB Breakfast: “I don’t know that figure.”
Experts said the system needed to be ready for lockdown being eased or infections could rise.
Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at Edinburgh University who has advised the Scottish Government, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Right now, looking at the numbers in England, it is a big risk and gamble. Deaths are up this week from last week ... still facing roughly 8,000 new infections a day from the ONS survey.
“So to not have a functioning test trace system and then to start opening up schools and shops this could trigger an increase in cases and therefore an increase in deaths in a few weeks time.
“Even the countries which brought infections to single digits have to continue to keep on top of this.”
She said countries like South Korea test people repeatedly. “Right now the crucial fact is we need to get diagnostic capacities up, that’s testing capacity up.”
Polling carried out exclusively for the Evening Standard by Portland found only a minority think Britain will have a world-beating system.
Hi @SamCoatesSky and @breeallegretti. Thanks so much for your interest. Progress is incredible. We've moved quickly to stand up huge T-and-T programme, so all not perfect. We're snagging loose ends. But v proud of our public and private partners. Do call for more details? https://t.co/CGFp3jQdRa— Lord Bethell (@JimBethell)May 29, 2020
Some 35 per cent thought it would be ineffective, compared with 26 per cent who thought it would be effective. And 39 per cent expected it to be merely “average”.
The nationwide testing programme has been massively stepped up from a mere 10,000 a day in March to 100,000 by the end of April, following an astonishing drive led by Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Mr Johnson then promised to hit 200,000 a day, pushing the system into overdrive so that full contact tracing would be made possible to launch. However, critics say the figures issued daily for tests carried out are sometimes inflated by double-counting, with some people tested twice on the same day, and by test kits posted to residential care homes being counted as carried out when issued, rather than when swabs have been sent back.
A No 10 spokeswoman defended the delivery of test and trace, saying it had been launched four days early so it could bed in and overcome any teething troubles
“The PM has been up front that there will be challenges as we go forward, but it has been an incredible effort that we have achieved in a matter of weeks the setting up of a system involving around 40,000 people, including 25,000 tracers and many thousands in testing,” she said.
Critically, most people’s contact numbers are currently low and the 25,000 tracers would build up their abilities at the same time as the return to work. “The PM has been clear that a fast turnaround of test results is important and the vast majority are already turned around in 48 hours or less, some in under 24 hours,” she said.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Time is running out on Boris Johnson’s commitment to deliver 200,000 tests a day. Throughout this crisis the Prime Minister has made grand policy promises but failed to deliver.
“When you look at testing, you see it has been riddled with double-counting; on PPE he counted a single glove as an item, rather than a pair; now he is saying we will have a world-beating system when it won’t be fully operational for weeks.”
Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said testing in care homes needs to be prioritised, and expressed fears that the test and trace scheme will result in “many” members of staff having to self-isolate.
He told BBC Breakfast: “I think one of the things that we have to understand is that it’s an enormous task to get testing into care homes, and also the testing is not a one-time activity.
“We need a rolling programme of testing, both for residents and also for staff, so this is something that is a huge logistical issue.”
Dr Kailash Chand, an honorary vice president of the British Medical Association, tweeted that with the rate of viral reproduction close to one, the limit set by ministers, relaxing lockdown could be relax “a recipe for disaster”. More than two million children are in the primary school year groups due to go back on Monday, according to the Office for National Statistics, though not all schools are expected to re-open.
Up to 680,000 families could in theory expect all of their children to return to school, which could potentially allow an estimated one million people to return to work. As lockdown begins to ease, the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 special envoy, Dr David Nabarro, warned “this virus has not gone away” .