LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s COVID test and trace system is failing to meet its objectives, delivering results too slowly and finding too few contacts of those who tested positive, the government’s spending watchdog said on Friday.
The National Audit Office report also found that, over the summer, thousands of call handler staff on average only worked for 1% of the time for which they were being paid.
The 22 billion pound ($29 billion) programme was launched in May by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a “world-beating” system to oversee testing of those who thought they had the virus and to then to trace their contacts if they tested positive.
The NAO said the government had succeeded in ramping up the NHS Test and Trace Service (NHST&T) from scratch and had the capacity for 500,000 tests per day at the end of October and was working towards 800,000 by the end of January.
But between the end of May and the start of November, on average only 41% of people got their results within 24 hours and the tracing service reached only 66% of close contacts to advise them to self-isolate, well below the 80% rate government advisers say is required to be effective, the NAO said.
It also failed to take adequate steps to prepare for a sharp rise in testing demand when schools and universities reopened.
“It must improve its performance with a focus on effective engagement with the public and integration with local efforts to improve tracing,” said Gareth Davies, the NAO head.
In May, 3,000 specialist health professionals and 18,000 call handlers were hired for an initial three-month period but in early summer a call handler on average actively worked just 1% of their paid time, well below a 50% target.
“Instead of handing multi-million pound contracts to big private outsourcing firms the government should have invested in local, experienced public health expertise,” said Jonathan Ashworth, the health spokesman for the opposition Labour Party.
The Department of Health acknowledged there was more to do but said since NHST&T’s launch, 20% of the population had been tested at least once, 41 million tests had been carried out and two million people contacted and told to self-isolate, with the proportion of contacts reached reaching 86% in the last week.
“As the COVID-19 vaccination programme is rolled out, we are determined to ensure that NHS Test and Trace plays an even more effective role in stopping the spread of the virus,” a spokesman said.
($1 = 0.7519 pounds)
(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)