Only one in five NHS trust leaders in England believe the government has taken the right approach to testing for Covid-19, according to a survey, as a growing number of experts raise concern that the current strategy is not robust enough to prevent a resurgence of the virus in the autumn.
And only one-third of trust executives felt that the government’s testing strategy would meet the needs of their users over the next three months, according to the study by NHS Providers, which represents hospital, mental health, community and ambulance services.
“If we can’t get this to work effectively, with everyone playing their part, we’ve got a real problem,” said Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers. “There isn’t a good legacy here [and] our trust leaders are not particularly confident in what the government has done.”
One chief executive of a mental health trust was quoted in the report as describing the government’s testing strategy to date as “shambolic”.
The discouraging assessment from some of the country’s most senior public health officials comes days after the government backtracked on its test and trace strategy, ceding to pressure to give greater responsibility to local authorities who have proved more effective than outsourcing companies at finding Covid-19 cases and their contacts.
The survey — which was answered by chief executives and chief operating officers at more than half of England’s 223 NHS trusts over a three-week period from the end of June — found that 70 per cent wanted a greater role in co-ordinating testing in their local areas.
“[The government] has overestimated the benefits of centralised and national systems . . . at the same time the contribution of trusts and public health departments on the ground has been undervalued and (consequently) underused,” said a chief executive of an acute trust, cited in the report. “With the benefit of hindsight these were major oversights.”
Reasons given for a lack of confidence in the government’s approach were the need for wider testing and community contact tracing earlier in the pandemic; persistently slow turnround times for results; and the failure to set up an effective, at scale, national test and trace service between March and May.
“People are nervous . . . they’re not clear about how we’re going to get to the right testing capacity by winter,” added Mr Hopson, noting that the only way to tell the difference between symptoms of Covid-19 and the winter flu was through testing.
The report comes as the latest test and trace data published on Thursday showed that the time it took for results to be returned to individuals increased significantly from the previous week owing to an IT failure at one of the test centres.
Some 67 per cent of in-person tests were returned within the target 24 hours, compared to 76.9 per cent the week before. And fewer than half of tests taken at home or at satellite centres, where the samples had to be sent off for analysis, were returned within the target 48 hours, compared to 72.9 per cent the previous week.
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A Department of Health spokesperson maintained test and trace was working well and had reached more than a quarter of a million people. There was capacity to do 300,000 tests a day and people could expect results of in-person tests the next day.
“Through our dedicated contact tracing teams and local authorities, we are reaching high numbers of those who test positive and their contacts at rates that are reaching 83.4 per cent of contacts, which exceeds international standards and is helping to keep our friends and family safe from this virus.”
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