Advertisement for the UK’s Test and Trace system in Regent Street in London on June 15
The latest data show just 74 per cent of the 4,966 people who tested positive for coronavirus in the final week of July were reached and asked to provide information about their contacts © Glyn Kirk/AFP

Be the first to know about every new Coronavirus story

England’s army of contact tracers will be assigned to local authorities this month as the government abandons its more centralised approach to stemming the spread of coronavirus.

The move, which the government announced on Monday, comes amid concern the national “test and trace” strategy is still failing to reach large numbers of those who test positive for the virus.

From August 24 “ringfenced” teams of tracers will start to work with local councils following successful trials in Leicester, Luton and Blackburn with Darwen, the government said.

If a team is unable to make contact with a resident after 48 hours, local public health officials will be given the powers to visit people in their homes and ask them to self-isolate.

“I am very pleased to announce that we are now offering this integrated localised approach to all local authorities to ensure we can reach more people in their communities and stop the spread of Covid-19,” said Dido Harding, head of NHS Test and Trace.

Many health experts, politicians and officials have been calling for a more localised strategy in order to identify and contain rises in infections amid fears of an autumn or winter resurgence of the virus.

Government officials said the more targeted approach also means the national service would dismiss 6,000 contact tracers, reducing the total number from 18,000 to 12,000. The move follows reports of many sitting idle and making just a few calls a month.

The department for health said in statement: “These dedicated teams of NHS Test and Trace contact tracers will focus their work on specific areas, alongside the relevant local public health officials to provide a more tailored service.”

The English “test and trace” programme is centrally controlled under Lady Harding. But Public Health England hands “complex cases” — such as an outbreak in a school or factory — to local authorities.

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, said the region’s health officials have found 99 per cent of contacts in local outbreaks, while the national system has reached just 53 per cent in the area.

At least 80 per cent of the close contacts of anyone infected with Covid-19 must be traced and isolated within 48 hours for the “test and trace” system to be effective, according to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

However, the latest data showed that just 74 per cent of the 4,966 people who tested positive for coronavirus in the final week of July were reached and asked to provide information about their contacts.

“The error was clearly to go to a private centralised system using phone tracing rather than so-called ‘shoe-leather epidemiology’ of using tried and trusted local public health structures to talk to people then knock on doors to get contacts,” said Stephen Reicher, a behavioural scientist who sits on a Sage subgroup.

He added that it was “amazing” there were no official figures on whether people are following the guidance to isolate “since the system is pointless if that doesn’t happen”.

Latest coronavirus news

Follow FT's live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here.

The Local Government Association last week warned many people are not being reached by contact tracers because they choose not to answer calls from unrecognised 0300 numbers, thinking they are marketing or crank calls.

Tim Swift, leader of Calderdale council in West Yorkshire, warned the national system has also been struggling to reach younger people and those from ethnic minorities. 

“I don’t know anyone under 30 who uses their answerphone,” he said.

The national system also lacks people who speak Asian and central European languages and often inputs Asian names incorrectly.

Get alerts on UK politics & policy when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article