Britons diagnosed with coronavirus are handing over fewer than two close contacts to the Governments’ track and tracers, raising doubts about whether the system is fit for purpose.
A leaked document revealed that just 10,000 close contacts were handed over by 8,000 people who were diagnosed with coronavirus in England last week.
Experts said today the results were ‘somewhat surprising’ and ‘somewhat disappointing’ and suggest people are still hesitant about handing over phone numbers of friends and family.
Another theory is that people are having very few close interactions with other people because of social distancing rules.
Meanwhile, the £10-an-hour contact tracing staff have complained they are still sitting around idle without any work to do, passing the time by watching Netflix or playing with their dog.
Experts believe a fully functioning test and trace programme will be critical if the UK is to avoid a spike in infections as life gets back to normal.
Countries like Germany and South Korea were two of only a handful of nations to flatten the curve of their outbreaks thanks to stringent test and trace systems.
The NHS Test and Trace programme launched last week but ministers are under pressure after failing to reveal how many people have so far been contacted
Test and trace requires people with symptoms to self-isolate and get tested. If they test positive their close contacts are then tracked down and also told to self-isolate.
The system is designed to break the chain of transmission as quickly as possible in order to squash potential outbreaks and stop them from escalating.
Ministers are facing growing criticism over their refusal to publish data showing how many people have been contacted by NHS Test and Trace so far.
Number 10 would only say the numbers will be released ‘shortly’ once the data has been verified.
The leaked document, seen by the BBC, gives a glimpse into how the crucial scheme is performing in its first week.
But the figures only account for Covid-19 cases in the community and do not include people who were hospitalised with the virus.
Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, said: ‘I think at the moment this is still very new and the people working the system are only really just getting their heads around how it works. There will still be a lot of wrinkles in the system.
‘But I think that the number of contacts being only a little over a one per case is somewhat surprising I think and somewhat disappointing.’
It has launched without the new NHSX app, which uses Bluetooth technology to alert people when they’ve been close to a COVID-19 patient
What is the NHS Test and Trace system?
Anyone who develops Covid-associated symptoms is being told to self-isolate and get tested under the test and trace scheme.
Close contacts of those who are found to be positive for the disease are then told to quarantine for 14 days – even if they test negative and are not sick.
Boris Johnson’s government has hired an enormous army of 50,000 people who will attempt to make this huge undertaking possible.
Around 25,000 are contact tracers who will contact people who return positive coronavirus tests to grill them on their movements and their known associates.
The idea is to build a picture of who they have come into contact with and so who might be at risk of a) becoming ill and b) passing it on to more people.
Another 25,000 people in the scheme are testers, who will go out into the community and test these known associates.
Either way, these known associates will be under orders to immediately quarantine, even if the tests they return are negative.
Baroness Dido Harding, executive chairwoman of NHS Test and Trace, said the scheme was central to easing the lockdown further.
She said: ‘NHS Test and Trace is designed to enable the vast majority of us to be able to get on with our lives in a much more normal way.
‘We will be trading national lockdown for individual isolation if we have symptoms.
‘Instead of 60 million people being in national lockdown, a much smaller number of us will be told we need to stay at home, either for seven days if we are ill or 14 days if we have been in close contact.’
The UK’s coronavirus tracing programme will be split into two parts.
People will be ordered to self-isolate for seven days if they develop symptoms. Anyone in the same household will have to do the same.
Those people should then order a coronavirus test online or by calling 119. This will be available for residents in Wales from Saturday.
If a test is positive, that victim must complete seven days in isolation. If the test comes back negative, no one needs to self-isolate.
However, people with a positive test for Covid-19 will then be contacted via text message or email or by phone and told to answer questions.
They will be asked to share phone numbers and email addresses for close contacts.
For those under 18, they will receive a call from the team and a parent or guardian must give permission for the call to continue.
People who have been listed as a person with whom a coronavirus victim has had close contact will receive a text message or an email.
They will then be asked to self-isolate for up to 14 days based on when they last came into contact with that person.
Other household members do not need to self-isolate unless symptoms are present.
If they develop Covid-associated symptoms, all other household members should self-isolate and they should then order a test.
If the test is positive, self-isolation must continue for seven days. If the test is negative, that person should still complete 14 days in case the virus is not showing.
‘There was a an unofficial pilot study in Sheffield, and they were reporting the fact they’re finding that often people were unwilling to tell people about their contacts.
‘So maybe there was an element of that but maybe it’s still gearing up and getting the system operating properly.’
Professor Hunter said the contact tracing was complicated and there might be some communication problems across different parts of Government.
One theory for the low contact turnover rate is that people are only having contact with one other person.
But Professor Hunter said he doubted the theory, adding: ‘It’s certainly one interpretation. But how many of us live in households where there is just only one other person? Quite a few, but there will be a lot more families in larger households.’
NHS Test and Trace has suffered numerous set backs since it went live with many staff complaining that they have not got any work to do.
A woman in her 30s, who does not want to be identified, said she has yet to pick up the phone to contact anyone, despite being given a minimum three-month contract working a full 37.5 hour week.
She told The i: ‘I phoned the support team on May 22 to see what was going on and was told ‘you just have to wait’.
‘I have literally just been waiting since then. And I’m not the only one saying this. There’s 182 people on my ‘smart team communicator’ chat.
‘No one I know of has been assigned any calls. Even with the ‘Go Live’ badge I received last week – which you get once the moderators have completed their checks – I still haven’t been given any work to do. It’s a bit worrying to be honest.’
Another said he had spent four shifts playing with his puppy and claimed that more than 80 per cent of staff were idle last week.
The man said: ‘It’s really frustrating. They’re throwing thousands or even millions of pounds away, all of the time I’m sat here doing basically nothing.
‘I sit next to my laptop, reading newspapers and looking after my new puppy. We were told we need to be ready at a moment’s notice, but we’re sat here watching.’
A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘The new NHS Test and Trace service is up and running and is helping save lives. Anyone in this country can now book a test and the majority who book a test get the results back within a day.
‘We have over 25,000 contact tracers in place, who have all been trained and are fully supported in their work by public health experts.’
It comes after it emerged ministers ignored its own scientists’ advice when developing the contact tracing programme.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told the Government that anyone who suffers Covid-19-like symptoms should be isolated along with their close contacts.
But the UK and devolved Governments ignored that advice and are only tracing the contacts of people who have been diagnosed with the virus, The i reports.
The decision was made because ministers were concerned the public would become burned out if they were repeatedly asked to self-isolate despite never having the disease.
The crucial test and trace system has been launched without the NHSX mobile app, which alerts people when they have come close to an infected person.
But Transport Secretary last week appeared to confirm the app won’t work perfectly when it is eventually launched nationwide to help halt the spread.
He responded to claims the app – considered the ‘cherry on the cake’ of Number 10’s flagship Test and Trace scheme – would be ‘imperfect’ and ‘clunky’ for several months.
Mr Shapps said: ‘Anyone who downloads an app on their phone knows it is forever being updated and bugs squashed and all the rest of it. Apps are never complete in that sense.’
Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi last night revealed the app won’t go live until the end of the month – despite officials first promising it would be ready to roll-out across Britain in mid-May following a trial on the Isle of Wight.