Test and Trace will only slow spread of coronavirus IF 80% of contacts tracked down in 48 hours, SAGE docs warn


CONTACT tracing will only slow the spread of coronavirus if 80 per cent of contacts are tracked down in 48 hours, top scientists have warned.

Documents from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) say that 4 in 5 will need to self-isolate if contacted for the system to work.

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 A contact tracer at work in a call centre in Brussels, Belgium
A contact tracer at work in a call centre in Brussels, BelgiumCredit: AFP

The experts also warn that contacts will need to be notified within 48 hours to reduce the risk of transmission.

Notes from a SAGE meeting – held on May 1 but only published today – state: “Tracing of contacts should begin as soon as a new suspected case is identified, in parallel to testing.

“All individuals declaring symptoms should be tested as quickly as practical.”

Previous failure

Meanwhile, notes from on February 20 show contact tracing had failed nearly a month earlier than the authorities had previously admitted.

They read: “SAGE concluded that individual cases could already have been missed – including individuals advised that they are not infectious (given the challenge of picking up the virus after the first week or so of infection).”

By February 27 the scientists had dramatically scaled up their views on problems facing the UK with the virus.

They said: “SAGE reviewed Covid-19 planning assumptions and advised that, in the reasonable worst case scenario, 80 per cent of the UK population may become infected.”

Half self-isolate

The documents also revealed that about half of people with coronavirus symptoms self-isolate for a week – raising concerns over whether future outbreaks can be prevented.

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It comes days before the lockdown is eased – with people being asked to isolate for 14 days even if they do not have symptoms.

Under the NHS Test and Trace programme, people in England will be told to quarantine themselves for two weeks if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive.

A document released today shows behavioural experts informing SAGE warned of the low compliance seen on a Department of Health and Social Care app.

“We strongly recommend monitoring and rapid research into adherence rates to all key behaviours and how to improve them, noting that based on DHSC tracker only around 50 per cent of people are currently reporting self-isolating for at least seven days when symptomatic with cough or fever,” they said.

Their warning comes as people across the UK are beginning to be allowed to meet up outside, at a distance, and shops start to reopen.

SAGE released a raft of documents in a drive for transparency, including the minutes of 34 of their meetings since they began convening on coronavirus in January.

On May 5, scientists stressed that alterations to retail, leisure and schools not pushing the transmission rate “R” above the crucial number of one are dependent on “an effective test and trace programme” being in place.

As he launched the programme this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted test and trace would not reach the “world-beating” standard he had promised until “the next days as we go through June”.

The SAGE minutes show scientists stressed that 80 per cent of an individual’s contact would need to be traced for the programme to be effective.

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They warned that there is a risk individuals become “less willing to comply” if they are repeatedly asked to isolate and “are impacted financially”, heaping pressure on ministers to ensure there is sufficient support.

 

Downing Street was unable to say how many calls were made or contacts traced during the programme’s first day of operation on Thursday.

Environment Secretary George Eustice insisted “calls were definitely made” by tracers.

“I don’t know how many cases were dealt with yesterday, I’m aware though that calls were made,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

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