Boris Johnson’s Test and Trace service has at last reported an improvement in its contact tracing rate – by giving up trying to contact children whose parents have already been reached.
The controversial system got through to 72.5% of people identified as having been near Covid sufferers in England, up from 60.5% on the previous week – having languished around the 60% mark for weeks.
The figures, for the week to November 25, follow “protocol” changes to the way families with a positive Covid case are phoned at home.
The service had faced complaints that such households were being “bombarded” with multiple calls to check if children under 18 were isolating for the required two weeks.
Children are no longer contacted individually by contact tracers, but instead the adult with Covid is told to inform them they need to quarantine. Once the parent provides basic information for their children, they are marked as “complete”.
The Department for Health and Social Care said: “These changes mean that under-18s in a household will no longer be contact traced individually, providing the parent or guardian in the household confirms they have completed their legal duty to inform their child to self-isolate.
“This operational improvement has resulted in an increase in the proportion of
contacts reached and the proportion reached within 24 hours.”
Insiders denied that the better results were essentially an “accountancy change” rather than an improvement in performance. Parents telling their children to self-isolate are also now better identified and more likely to engage, it is claimed.
Other reasons for the improved statistics are more local contact tracers being deployed in 250 council areas, as well as more people “digitally self-serving” by using the system’s website to hand over contacts.
Another reason for the improvement among family contact rates could be the impact of the national lockdown, with more people forced to spend time at home and therefore easier to get hold of.
Test and Trace now has a £22bn budget, equivalent to nearly a fifth of the entire NHS budget each year, and is still failing to meet key targets set by government scientists to make it viable.
Although the 72.5% figure is an improvement, it is still well short of the 80% target that Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) recommends.
Test turnaround times have also slightly improved in the week to November 25. For in-person tests – conducted at local test sites, mobile testing units and regional test sites – 54.2% were received within 24 hours, compared to 50.7% in the previous week.
In line with the drop in Covid cases under the second national lockdown, the latest figures show 110,620 people tested positive for Covid-19 in England at least once during the last seven-day period.
This is down 28% week-on-week and is the lowest total since the week ending October 14.
Test and Trace chief Dido Harding said: “We have listened to feedback on the contact tracing process.
“Adding a further 50 local tracing partnerships to the capability of NHS Test and Trace is also another significant step in supporting communities across the country through outbreaks in an ever more localised way.”