Major Challenges Ahead for Test and Trace

Peter Russell

January 08, 2021

The head of England's Test and Trace programme said she was concerned at how few people told to self-isolate following a positive COVID-19 test may be following the instructions.

Baroness Dido Harding/RCP

Baroness Dido Harding said even more worrying were the number of people who did not come forward for testing at all because of concerns about the consequences of having to self-isolate. "I've self-isolated – it's really hard", she told a seminar at the Royal College of Physicians' 2021 annual conference. She said that while a survey last summer by King's College London suggested that only 20% of people followed the guidelines "to the letter", a more recent analysis showed the figure was closer to 50%.

Asked whether a payment of £500 to people on lower incomes was sufficient to encourage compliance, she emphasised the importance of "tackling awareness of the financial support payment, because there are lots of people that don't know it exists".

However, she said a need for support ranked even higher than financial help, such as "knowing how to get a food delivery to your house, someone who will do the shopping and get you your prescription for you, or help with your caring responsibilities".

Test & Trace Numbers

Baroness Harding said NHS Test and Trace had:

  • Created the capacity for over 750,000 daily tests

  • Established over 700 testing sites

  • Carried out 51 million tests

  • Tested over 20% of the population at least once

  • Contacted over 3 million people to notify them to self-isolate

She claimed that the Test and Trace programme had reduced the R number by around 0.3 to 0.6 compared to a scenario with only social distancing and lockdown restrictions.

Looking ahead, Baroness Harding said she had a number of priorities to improve the system, including increasing the speed and reach of services and improving the use of data.

"Our goal, looking forward, is how we can play an even bigger role in reducing 'R'," she promised.

An analysis shared with conference delegates suggested that by March this year testing and tracing could reduce the R rate by between 0.5 and 0.7, and 0.6 to 0.8 in high prevalence areas.

The test and trace system was likely to have a 'long goodbye', she said, predicting that it would be with us for a long time to come.

"It's important that we think about the enduring public health legacy that we leave – that the diagnostics capability and capacity that we're building should transform how we address disease in the long-term," she said.

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