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Government reveals new Covid-19 test and trace plans

But scientists foresee a host of teething problems to the complex programme

A government test and trace programme announced today aims to identify, contain and control the coronavirus in the UK.

Under new measures, anyone who tests positive for coronavirus will be contacted by the NHS test and trace service, and will be asked to share information about their recent interactions.

Those identified as having been in close contact with someone who has a positive test must stay at home for 14 days, even if they do not have symptoms, to stop unknowingly spreading the virus.

Meanwhile, a national Joint Biosecurity Centre will work with local authorities and public health teams in Public Health England, including local directors of public health, to identify localised outbreaks and support local responses.

Local authorities have been supported by £300 million of new funding to help local authorities develop their own local outbreak control plans.

John Newton, director of health improvement for Public Health England, described the programme as an “important intervention” alongside measures such as social distancing and good hand hygiene.

“As everyone knows, we are moving now because the rate of coronavirus is falling to quite low levels,” Newton told journalists during a Science Media Centre briefing on 27 May. But the success of the programme will rely on a number of factors, including scaling up of testing, he said.

Isabel Oliver, director of research, translation and innovation at the University of Bristol, an epidemiologist and interim director of the National Infection Service at Public Health England, said the service was “of a scale not previously seen” in the UK.

“We have developed an online tool which means a lot of the contact tracing can be managed online,” she said. “But in addition, to support this and to make sure that all of the contacts of people who test positive for the infection can be identified quickly and given advice as soon as possible, we have also recruited thousands of people to help us with this.”

“International experience shows us that a test, track and isolate system is central to containing Covid-19 as we gradually move out of lockdown,” said Linda Bauld, professor of public health at University of Edinburgh. “Other countries implemented this early and have kept doing it since the start of the pandemic but the UK abandoned it at an early stage and is now playing catch up.”

Bauld and several other scientists highlighted the challenges of operating such a system, saying there are bound to be teething problems.

“The success of the programme will rely on a number of things,” Bauld said, adding that “given all these steps, we shouldn’t expect that this will work perfectly and there could be several points of failure.”

Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology, at the University of Reading, said: “This new initiative can only work if the government reinforces the message that the rules must apply to everyone, and are not interpreted to suit individual circumstances. Given recent revelations [about PM’s chief aide Dominic Cummings seemingly breaking the lockdown], they now face an uphill battle to show the public that we really are all in this together.”

And Eivor Oborn, an expert on health technology at Warwick Business School, said: “The fact that the trace, track, and isolate system is being launched ahead of the delayed NHS app is a problematic sign. The government had already admitted the app would not be ready to launch on 1 June.

“That implies there have been issues—for example, getting the technology to work correctly without draining the phone battery,” he said. “Without an app, the rapid transmission of the virus between people, will be faster than the time it takes to do the needed detective work and phone calls to alert all exposed individuals.”

“It is imperative the technology actually works,” Oborn said. “Manual tracing alone is too slow, and if there is a second spike it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to locate contacts fast enough.”