Boris Johnson’s test and trace service has hit another new low after it reported its worst ever figures for tracking down “close contacts” of people with Covid.
The controversial system saw just 59.6% of cases in England being reached and told to self-isolate to stop the spread of the virus.
The figure is the worst since the so-called NHS Test and Trace was launched in May, and down on the previous week’s 62.6% , itself a record low at the time.
It means that nearly more than 40% of people who have been in contact with someone testing positive for the virus have not been reached – and not told to home quarantine for 14 days.
Government scientific experts have advised that the whole system can only work effectively if at least 80% of “close contacts” are actually tracked down and self-isolate
Close contacts are defined as those who have spent more than 15 minutes within two metres of a positive Covid case.
Latest figures for the week between October 8 and October 14 starkly underlined the continuing surge in coronavirus cases across the country, with 101,494 people testing positive for the first time – a 12% increase compared to the previous week.
The so-called NHS Test and Trace system, which is headed by Tory peer and former TalkTalk phone giant boss Dido Harding, has been dogged by criticism since it began earlier this year, with many attacking its use of private firms like Serco and Deloitte.
The statistics for turnaround times for tests also went in the wrong direction.
The proportion of in-person tests – local test sites, mobile testing units and
regional test sites – received within 24 hours was just 15.1%, less than half of the 32.8% in the previous week.
Boris Johnson had promised MPs earlier this year that his “world beating” test and trace system would hit a 100% target for receiving results within 24 hours by the end of June.
The figures show that for all routes combined, just 7.4% of tests were received within 24 hours, compared to 14.8% in the previous week). The 7.4% figure is the lowest recorded since the service began.
Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “To have over 40 per cent of people not even being contacted by the test and trace system is an Interstellar sized black hole in the Government’s plan to reduce transmission.
“How much longer are we expected to put up with this dangerous failure before Ministers admit that the likes of Serco just aren’t up to the job? The need for a circuit break is absolutely critical now and that time should be used to fix test and trace once and for all.”
The Department of Health and Social Care admitted in its report on the figures that the 15% statistic for 24-hour turnaround was heading the wrong way.
It said: “There has been a downward trend in the percentage of in-person test results received within 24 hours since the end of June when 94.3% were received within this time frame.”
The worrying numbers on the proportion of “close contacts” reached was down to the big rise in so-called “non-complex” cases of the virus in the community.
These are cases outside hospital and care home settings where it is much harder to identify those who have come into contact with someone testing positive.
“As non-complex cases have a higher proportion of contacts who are unable to be reached, this has contributed to the reduction in the overall percentage of contacts who were reached and asked to self-isolate since Test and Trace launched, from 91.1% to 59.6% in the latest week,” the DHSC said.
But yet again there was a big difference in results for the public and private sector arms of the service.
For cases handled by local health protection teams, 94.8% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate in the week to October 14. For cases handled either online or by call centres, the figure was 57.6%.
The statistics also show starkly how the percentage of people testing positive has increased and that the rise cannot be explained by the fact that many more people are being tested than earlier in the pandemic.
The weekly positivity rate for has increased dramatically since the end of August, going up from 0.9% between 20 August and 26 August to 7.1% in the most recent week.
The service reported slightly better figures for the number of people with Covid that it managed to reach in the first place.
Out of the 96,521 people transferred to the contact tracing system in the latest week, 77,892 (80.7%) were reached, 17,141 (17.8%) were not reached and 1,488 (1.5%) had no communication details.
The proportion of people reached has decreased since the beginning of September but has increased slightly in the latest week.
The proportion of people who provided contact details of one or more contacts also increased to 84.9%.
The prime minister’s official spokesman accepted the figures were not good enough.
“We are processing tests on an unprecedented scale and we are regularly doing over 300,000 a day now. But we recognise that testing turnaound times must improve and we are working hard to address this,” he said.
“NHS Test and Trace is increasing staffing levels, the use of robotics and it is adding more testing capacity, meaning they will be able to both do more tests, but also to improve turnaround times.
“You can see we are putting extra resource into test and trace for example we are making available specific amounts of money to areas which go into the ‘Very High’ alert level to ensure there is additional resource on the ground to help with contact tracing.
“We have always said there will be a need for test and trace to continually improve and we are putting in the work to do that.”
Test and Trace chief Baroness Harding said: “Reducing turnaround times is our absolute priority to make sure we are reaching people as soon as possible.
“We always need to balance ensuring as many people as possible can get a test alongside ensuring test results are delivered as quickly as possible, and as capacity continues to grow at pace, we expect to see improvements.”
She stressed that testing capacity of nearly 30,000 tests had been added in the last week, “which will result in faster turnaround times going forward”.
Health minister Lord Bethell added: “On all fronts, we’re increasing our resources to ensure we can meet the challenge of the coming winter.
“We’re rightfully proud of our achievements, as we continue to test more per head that any other European country.
“However, we do know that more needs to be done; to this end, we’re constantly looking for new ways to improve the service, scoping out new technologies, partnerships and ways of working to equip us to better support our people, locally and nationally.”
The test-and-trace system faced fresh criticism this week when it emerged was being forced to draft in untrained staff to carry out clinical assessments of patients infected with coronavirus.
Leaked emails obtained by The Independent show that as of Wednesday, staff from outsourcing firms Serco and Sitel, who have no clinical training, will be working alongside nurses and clinical staff to help assess and contract trace approximately 20,000 cases each day.
Serco was handed a contract worth more than £410 million to help run testing facilities where swabs are taken from potentially infected patients.
Sitel has been paid over £300 million to provide systems and help the test and trace service to run.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.