UK contact tracers not fully occupied, says coronavirus testing chief

Rowena Mason

Many of the 18,000 contact tracers recruited to find new cases of coronavirus are “not fully occupied”, the government’s testing chief has admitted, although he insisted people were reacting positively to being asked to isolate for 14 days.

Prof John Newton, who is coordinating the testing programme, said the new system was “working well”, despite numerous reports from the newly recruited contact tracers that they had nothing to do.

He said there was “a lot of capacity” and “many of them are not fully occupied” but he highlighted the fact that the number of new daily cases was coming down.

Speaking alongside Newton at No 10’s daily press conference, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the test-and-trace system was “up and running”.

“It’s successful, I’m very glad to report that those who are asked to isolate by the contact tracers are expressing the willingness to do so and we track that very carefully.”

He added: “The level of incidence of disease has come down and so actually we have more capacity than we need; this is a good thing.

“I think to err on the side of having too many contact tracers is the right side to err on. I’d rather have too many people trained and ready to go.”


Contact tracing is one of the most basic planks of public health responses to a pandemic like the coronavirus. It means literally tracking down anyone that somebody with an infection may have had contact with in the days before they became ill. It was – and always will be – central to the fight against Ebola, for instance. In west Africa in 2014-15, there were large teams of people who would trace relatives and knock on the doors of neighbours and friends to find anyone who might have become infected by touching the sick person.

Most people who get Covid-19 will be infected by their friends, neighbours, family or work colleagues, so they will be first on the list. It is not likely anyone will get infected by someone they do not know, passing on the street.

It is still assumed there has to be reasonable exposure – originally experts said people would need to be together for 15 minutes, less than 2 metres apart. So a contact tracer will want to know who the person testing positive met and talked to over the two or three days before they developed symptoms and went into isolation.

South Korea has large teams of contact tracers and notably chased down all the contacts of a religious group, many of whose members fell ill. That outbreak was efficiently stamped out by contact tracing and quarantine.

Singapore and Hong Kong have also espoused testing and contact tracing and so has Germany. All those countries have had relatively low death rates so far. The World Health Organization says it should be the “backbone of the response” in every country.

Sarah Boseley Health editor


Neither Hancock nor Newton could say how many positive cases had asked for their contacts to be traced so far, how many people had been asked to isolate, how many of those had gone on to test positive or when those figures would be made public.

At the briefing, Hancock announced the lowest number of daily deaths, 111, since the lockdown began, although this did not include 445 extra deaths from 24 April to 31 May that were listed in an annexe.

The number of new daily cases confirmed through a positive test was 1,570, which is also the lowest since the start of the lockdown. However, scientists estimate that the number of new daily infections is still running at about 8,000 per day in the community, meaning many are going under the radar.

With concerns that the contact-tracing system is still not in a good enough state to be effective, Clive Betts, the chairman of the communities, housing and local government committee, wrote to Boris Johnson demanding more details on how it would work.

“We would like the government to set out the respective roles of all the different organisations involved and publish this online,” he wrote, asking for clarification on how the new joint biosecurity council (JBS) would be asked to advise local authorities.

Hancock acknowledged on Monday that the new JBS does not yet formally exist.

He told the Downing Street press conference: “We are getting it stood up, making sure that all the information flows come to it so it is able to analyse them and to make sure that it gets set up correctly. All that work is being done as we speak.”

He added that “it’s being formulated at the moment”.

Ed Davey, the acting Lib Dem leader, said it was “concerning” that the government was not yet making the testing, tracing and isolation data available to the public. 

“The government claims to be ‘led by the science’ but with members of Sage publicly warning against the government’s policy and little access to data about test, trace, isolate, a science-led approach is looking like a threadbare claim. The press conference today raised even more concerns about lockdown beginning to be lifted too early,” he said.

“The government approach to coronavirus is becoming increasingly confused and chaotic, whilst the majority of people just want clarity so they can keep safe.”