Half of Britons with tell-tale Covid-19 symptoms don’t get test results for at least four days after they first become ill, it emerged today.
Scientists have warned the huge delays are rendering Number 10’s contact tracing scheme useless, and could allow the epidemic to spiral back out of control.
SAGE says close contacts need to be tracked down and told to self isolate within 24 hours of interacting with a coronavirus-infected patient.
Any longer than that risks allowing people to unknowingly infect countless others, making it impossible for tracers to hunt down every contact.
But it is currently taking 96 hours before the track and trace process even begins on many symptomatic patients, The Telegraph reports.
This is because of the time it takes to ship tests, process the results, and pass them on to the government’s contact-tracing scheme. It doesn’t account for any postal delays or faulty samples, which can make it take even longer.
The Government has repeatedly failed to hit its own testing targets throughout the crisis, after struggling to bump swabs up to 100,000 a day in April then missing it for eight days straight in May.
The Prime Minister promised on June 3 that every coronavirus test would be turned around within a day by the end of the month.
Half of home Covid-19 tests are taking four or more days to give a diagnosis, it emerged today as Boris Johnson fails on his promise to process all swabs in 24 hours
But Number 10 has so far failed to provide any data on progress towards hitting the target with the deadline now having passed.
The first set of what will be weekly statistics on the 24 hour target will be published today — but they will only cover the period between June 18-24.
That means it will not become clear until the end of next week, when the second set of data will be published, if the target was met by June 30.
Asked yesterday if the Government does not yet know if the target was met by the deadline, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman told MailOnline: ‘I don’t, no.’
Dr David Bonsall, of Oxford University, who has been advising the Government on contact tracing, told The Telegraph: ‘We have made it clear from the very start that speed is absolutely critical, we have got to find people before they infect others.
‘Our modelling shows that we have to turn tests around within 24 hours from the point of symptoms. If it is taking four days to turn tests around, contact tracing will have very little effect on the virus.’
Modelling by Dr Bonsall’s team at Oxford found that taking longer than two days after a person showed Covid-19 symptoms to track their contacts halved the number of cases that were caught.
If a contact was not traced within six days then tracking them down would be useless because the are likely to have already passed it on to others, they found.
Was Leicester’s Covid surge down to more TESTING? Public Health England say increase in tests may be behind part of the increase that was not caused by any specific outbreak
There is no obvious source for a recent rise in coronavirus cases in Leicester and the growing number of people found carrying the virus could partly be due to a ‘growth in availability of testing’ in the city, a bombshell report revealed today.
Public Health England’s investigation also found ‘no explanatory outbreaks in care homes, hospital settings, or industrial processes’ after the rise in infections led to the UK’s first local lockdown.
The report reveals that about half of all cases were among Asian or British Asian people living in Leicester, and focussed in the east of the city, where BAME communities make up two-thirds of the local population.
It came as official figures published last night showed that coronavirus positive tests in England are down from 10.7 cases per 100,000 population to 6.7 in just a week – a drop of 37.4 per cent based on the latest available figures.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock tightened restrictions across Leicester and nearby suburbs on Monday, ordering non-essential shops to close and urging people not to travel in or out of the area.
The PHE report found an increase in the number of people aged under 19 who had been infected in the East Midlands city, from 5 per cent of all cases in mid-May to 15 per cent in June, and a similar increase in infections among working-age people.
The report said the increase in positive tests is ‘probably linked, in part, to the availability of testing to the general public’.
The majority of tests have been carried out in hospitals and in care homes, with more than 9.6million swabs handed out to patients, residents and staff – known as ‘Pillar 1’ testing.
Home tests of symptomatic cases have accounted for more than 2.8 million tests, half of the Government’s ‘Pillar 2’ testing scheme for people in the community.
Drive-through centres, which make up the rest of ‘Pillar 2’ tests, have so far accounted for 2.1million swabs.
Yesterday there were 146,624 Pillar 2 swabs done in the community, more than 100,000 of which were home swabs.
Mr Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock have faced questions throughout the pandemic over the amount of time it takes for people to get their test results.
The Prime Minister was grilled on the issue in the House of Commons on June 3 by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Mr Hunt asked the Prime Minister to reveal how many tests were being processed within 24 hours and to commit to publishing that number on a regular basis.
Mr Johnson replied: ‘The answer is that we already turn around 90 per cent of tests within 48 hours.
‘The tests conducted at the 199 testing centres, as well as the mobile test centres, are all done within 24 hours, and I can undertake to him now to get all tests turned around in 24 hours by the end of June, except for difficulties with postal tests or insuperable problems like that.’
But the Government has failed to disclose whether they count their 24-hour target from the moment the test is taken or when a person develops symptoms and asks to have a test.
Professor John Newton – who was made leader of the UK’s testing programme in April – said the latter strategy was crucial to curbing the epidemic.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘We’ve rapidly expanded our testing capability into a world-beating industry and anyone with symptoms can now get a test.
‘There has been consistent improvement in testing turnaround times and these will be published in the next NHS Test and Trace figures.’
Downing Street has been repeatedly pressed in recent days to give an update on whether the Government was on track to hit the end of June target. However, data on the issue has not been released.
The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman was yesterday unable to say whether the pledge had been met.
The spokesman said: ‘We said that was something that we wanted to achieve by the end of the month and we’re talking to Department of Health and Social Care about how we can make that data available.
‘We’ve been working to turn around those test results as quickly as possible but I don’t have those figures for you.’
The Government’s failure to set out any progress which may have been made towards hitting the target has prompted concerns that the deadline has not been met.
Mr Hunt has previously written to the Prime Minister seeking an update and reassurances that efforts were on track.
Last week the Tory chairman of the Health Select Committee said: ‘Test and Trace needs rapid turnaround of test results to be effective so I am concerned that I have still not had a reply to my earlier letter to the Prime Minister asking for data on 24 hour test turnaround.
‘Today I have written again asking him to confirm that we are on track to meet his 24 hour turnaround target by the end of June.’