Government warned over test and trace as UK schools prep to reopen

The current level of test and trace in the UK is inadequate to prevent a sharp increase in coronavirus infections when schools reopen in September and there is further relaxation of social distancing rules, according to scientists.

A second wave of COVID-19 could be avoided if enough people are tested and traced, according to the team from University College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

That would need a testing rate for people showing symptoms of coronavirus infection of between 59% and 87% however – along with effective tracing of contacts and isolation, they write in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health.

Labour leader Keir Starmer claims in The Guardian however that the government’s much-vaunted test and trace system simply isn’t up to the job, and the country will face a “long bleak winter” if it doesn’t improve within the next month.

According to the UCL and LSHTM scientists, if tracing is 40% effective testing would have to be at 87% to prevent a sharp increase in transmissions in early September.

At the moment the test and trace system is claimed to be 68% effective at finding contacts, and that would require a testing level of 75%, according to the researchers’ model. They also don’t believe that the UK system is working at that level of efficiency.

“We need to scale up current TTI [test-trace-isolate] strategies to avoid COVID-19 resurgence later this year,” according to lead author Dr Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths of UCL and Oxford University.

Otherwise, the UK will face a secondary wave that would peak in December that could be at least twice the size of the original COVID-19 outbreak, the researchers predict.

Starmer says that Labour has been a “constructive opposition” during the crisis, but can no longer ignore that Boris Johnson’s government “has been too slow to act throughout this crisis – too slow into lockdown, too slow on testing and too slow getting PPE to frontline workers.”

What is needed is a rapid improvement in TTI and a ramping up of testing among the 70% to 80% of people who don’t have symptoms, he writes in the Guardian column.

The head of the NHS test and trace scheme – Baroness Dido Harding – insisted to the BBC today that the system is delivering tracing rates that are “well within the bounds” of what the researchers described as necessary in the research paper.

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