Leicester’s outbreak of Covid-19 was identified because of NHS test and trace, not in spite of it, according to Dido Harding who leads the programme.
“It is precisely because of NHS test and trace that we’ve been able to identify this outbreak early and take the right action,” said Harding. “We have been working really closely with the local health protection teams and the local authority over the last few weeks.”
They had deployed additional mobile testing units to Leicester, “which if you hadn’t got NHS test and trace up and running, no one would have known was necessary”.
She rejected suggestions that Leicester city council called on Public Health England for help because it had insufficient data from the community testing carried out by commercial companies which is part of NHS test and trace.
“If you look at the timeline, through the last three weeks, what we’ve seen is the local council and the test-and-trace teams on the ground, identifying that there was an issue, that the prevalence of the disease in Leicester was significantly higher than other parts of the country,” she said.
On 8 and 15 June, Public Health England, which handles the more complex test-and-trace cases, shared data with Leicester council, she said, and they all participated in a round table on 17 June. The following day, they sent in a mobile testing unit and by 28 June, there were four more in the city.
All local authorities have now been given detailed data on the patients testing positive, subject to signing data protection agreements. Leicester accessed the data on 25 June, she said.
On 18 May, Matt Hancock announced coronavirus testing is being extended in the UK to anyone over the age of five with symptoms.
Before then, eligibility had been limited to a series of groups including key workers, those aged over 65, people who could not work from home, or people who lived with someone from one of these groups.
Those with symptoms can now use the gov.uk website to book home test kits or appointments at drive-through centres across the country.
“I think that’s the system working,” she said. “Is it working completely perfectly? No, of course it’s not. This is an NHS test-and-trace service that’s a month old.” There was a lot still to learn, but Leicester showed they were able to take “much more targeted action” and not just national action.
Data for the week 18-24 June showed a quarter of those who tested positive in England were still not handing over details of people they had met over the previous two days to the contact tracers, Harding said. “We’re doing a lot to improve the way that the contact tracers work, we’re learning what time of day is more effective to contact people, we’re constantly testing different messaging on the emails and the texts and understanding how to sort of connect with people in their lives,” she said.
Labour’s Justin Madders, a shadow health minister, said it was not good enough. “There is no doubt that this is well below the levels we need to effectively contain the virus and the government seems to be too slow again to react to these failings,” he said.
“As we now begin to see localised lockdowns we need ministers to be far more rigorous about getting to the bottom of why the contact rate isn’t improving. The performance so far simply isn’t good enough and far from the world-leading system we were promised.”
Harding said her biggest worry was that not enough people were coming forward for tests. Only a third of those that the Office for National Statistics says are infected, from its surveys, are getting tests.
“Some of that is because it’s really hard to find people who don’t have any symptoms and feel fine, but some of it is also that people across the country don’t know that they can get a test. Our polling still shows that less than half the country knows that absolutely everybody is eligible for tests,” she said.
She urged anyone who felt even slightly unwell or whose child might run a temperature in the night not to struggle stoically on but to get tested – and for the whole family to stay home until they had the result.
Most people tested would get a result the next day, she said – 98% who went to the drive-through centres, nearly 97% from mobile units and 74% from satellite units, for instance in hospitals. Only a quarter of people who did home tests got a result the next day, but they tended to be people for whom the result was not so urgent – for instance if they needed a test prior to having an operation.