Coronavirus: Government must replace failing testing and tracing system for schools to reopen, warns Independent Sage


Ministers need to completely rethink their entire coronavirus testing and tracing strategy, a high-level panel of experts has warned, as the government admitted the R rate could again exceed one.

Independent Sage, which was set up amid concerns about political interference in the government’s official advisory committee, said the centralized testing system “just isn’t good enough” after nine weeks of operation and shows no signs of improvement.

Local authorities have sounded the alarm bells on the system, with Blackburn with Darwen Council in Lancashire going so far as to set up its own program to fill in the gaps left by the national effort. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham on Friday warned the system was “not good enough” and was hampering efforts to control the virus in his city.

Independent Sage said a dramatically improved testing and tracing system is needed to safely reopen schools and businesses in the fall. Its experts are calling for resources to be redirected to local systems, citing evidence that more localized approaches in the UK and countries like Germany and South Korea were producing much better results.

“We believe it is time to rethink the whole test and traceability system,” Christina Pagel, director of clinical operations research at University College London, told reporters in a briefing Friday.

“We have now had the central system for nine weeks, we are monitoring it, it has not improved … we think it is time to invest these resources instead in local structures which are already being developed in parts of England and the deconcentrated nations.

The warning comes after The independent revealed a leak analysis last month showing that the testing and tracing system was failing to reach more than half of the contacts named by those infected in areas with acute outbreaks. The latest statistics show that the system has yet to be improved, with around 53 percent of contacts reached by the national system.

Anthony Costello, former director of the Institute for Global Health at University College London who sits on the committee, said it was clear that a local approach would work better.

“The figures for local tracing are absolutely clear: we have seen the complex cases … basically [those] pursued locally by Public Health England’s health protection teams, they get 99%, central call centers get 53%. It’s a huge difference, ”he says.

The professor added, “You can’t do this centrally. We aim to open our schools and protect our economy, which is why we have been striving to find, test, trace, isolate, support for six months.

“What [the government] think right now is almost impossible to understand – they don’t seem to be listening to Sage [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] and like Sir Paul Nurse [director of the Francis Crick Institute] repeatedly said on the BBC, who is in charge? We don’t seem to really know who is responsible. ”

Professor Costello suggested that the government’s approach was a symptom of the “British disease of not delegating power to localities” as elsewhere in Europe.

Latest government estimates suggest the R reproduction rate of Covid-19 is above 1 and is therefore spreading to London, north-west and south-west.

Dr Zubaida Haque, director of the Runnymede Trust, which also sits at Independent Sage, said the government’s decision to go for a centralized system was “puzzling”.

Mr Burnham told the BBC that those contacted and asked to self-isolate felt they were not financially incapable of doing so and that the government also had to tackle this issue if it wanted to his system is efficient.

“A number of people in our poorest communities find it very, very difficult to accept a request to take 14 days off when they know they won’t be paid or, worse, will lose their jobs. . And this of course particularly affects people who are self-employed or who have zero hour contracts. ”

He added, “I think we have to do something here that is akin to jury service, you know, when you get a request to sit on a jury, you are asked to do your public duty, and a request to sit on a jury. NHS Test and Trace. is similar because it is in the general interest of the local community that you take this downtime. So it should not be that people are somehow prevented from doing this by financial worries or worries about their work.

Independent Sage said the latest figures showed there had been an increase in infections in the community in recent weeks that could not be fully explained by an increase in testing.

It comes as the government imposes a new local lockdown on Preston starting at midnight Friday, after an increase in the number of coronavirus cases.

New restrictions will prohibit city households from meeting indoors or in gardens. The city has been bracing for the announcement since an increase in Covid-19 cases was confirmed last week.

Ministers also confirmed that current restrictions on gatherings in Greater Manchester, Leicester, parts of West Yorkshire and East Lancashire will remain in place. Wider restrictions at Leicester, Blackburn and Bradford will also continue.


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