Boris Johnson said England’s coronavirus test and trace system had to improve after it recorded its worst weekly performance since its launch in May, with testing turnround times soaring and the proportion of contacts of infected people reached falling to a record low.
With the programme coming under increasing strain as infections rise, figures released by the government on Thursday for the week ending October 14 showed only a third of people received results from in-person tests the next day, down from two-thirds the week before. Only 15 per cent received their results within 24 hours, compared to 32.8 per cent the week before.
Four-fifths of those who were transferred to the system were reached by contact tracers, up from 77 per cent the week before. But under 60 per cent of their identified contacts were reached, down from 63 per cent the week before and a new low for the programme.
Anxiety is growing in Number 10 over the stubbornly poor performance of the programme, which ministers had hoped would prove a bulwark against the spread of Covid-19, protecting the NHS in the difficult winter months.
The prime minister told a Downing Street press conference on Thursday he “shared the frustration” over the dismal turnround time for Covid-19 tests, adding: “We do need to improve it.” Mr Johnson had vowed that by the end of June all tests would be returned within 24 hours.
Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s most senior adviser, is said by colleagues to have been “all over test and trace” in recent weeks as Downing Street desperately tries to get a grip on the £12bn programme.
According to some officials close to Number 10 Mr Cummings is frustrated with the performance of Dido Harding, the former TalkTalk chief executive brought in by Mr Johnson to run the service.
Some senior government officials have started referring to Baroness
Harding and Lord Bethell, health minister, as “Laurel and Hardy”. However Mr Johnson is said to remain personally supportive of Baroness Harding.
Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, suggested that it may already be too late to fix the testing system in time to contain the virus. “It’s much more difficult to have an impact once numbers are high,” he said.
Sir Patrick said there was clearly room for improvement in the system but added that the fast rise in cases was “diminishing the effectiveness of this anyway”.
James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and professor of structural biology at the University of Oxford, said the new test and trace numbers “show a system struggling to make any difference to the epidemic”.
“Getting an effective system over the summer was much easier than doing so now,” said Prof Naismith. “If the system is to be made effective, and I have my doubts this is now possible, it will need a clear set of plans that explain what changes are being made and how these will fill the holes.”
A total of 1.4m people were tested at least once for the virus in the week to October 14, still a long way off the government’s target of 3.5m tests per week by the end of this month. Testing capacity now stands at 3m tests per week, according to the latest data release.
While acknowledging the need for improvement, Mr Johnson also claimed that the “the achievements of the testing operation have been colossal”, adding that the government was on track to deliver 500,000 tests a day by the end of October.
There was a 12 per cent increase in positive Covid-19 cases in England in the latest week, with a total of 101,494 people testing positive, according to the data.
Covid-19 hospital deaths have quadrupled in the north of England over the past fortnight as the afflicted areas go under heavier restrictions to try to contain the spread of the virus.
NHS England’s latest figures showed 152 Covid-19 patients died in hospital, from 43 two weeks ago, bringing the total number of confirmed reported deaths in hospitals in England to 31,427. All except seven had underlying health conditions.