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Coronavirus: Track and trace not good enough to stop second wave, scientists warn

Ministers insist system is working fine Oliver Wright, Tom Whipple and Chris Smyth Tuesday August 04 2020, 12.00pm, The Times

A health worker drops a completed coronavirus test into a collection bucket at a drive-in facility at Cardiff City Stadium

Ministers insisted today that the government’s track and trace programme is “delivering” despite warnings by scientists that it is still not good enough to prevent a second wave of coronavirus when schools reopen.

Modelling by academics at the University of London found that 75 per cent of symptomatic Covid-19 cases would need to be caught by the programme and 70 per cent of their contacts followed up if the government is to keep the virus in check.

At present, testers and contact tracers manage to reach only about half of people with a symptomatic infection. They then follow up half their contacts, leaving the nation far from the level needed to safely reopen schools, the study concluded.

The study’s authors warned that if testing and tracing could not be improved it might be necessary to close other parts of society, such as pubs or restaurants to prevent another uncontrollable outbreak.

Responding to the study this morning, however, Simon Clarke, the local government minister, insisted the government’s programme was working and would continue to improve. He added that reopening schools in the autumn was “not up for debate”.

He said: “184,000 people so far have been contacted by the programme, either who’ve tested positive or their contacts, and those people have all been allowed to self-isolate, removed from the community at a time when they could be at risk of spreading the virus.

“I think it’s obviously vital that we always continue to keep up the progress that we’re making with test and trace, which is a massive national undertaking and it is working.

“There’s always more to do, we continue to work very hard to boost our testing capacity . . . but one thing is clear, schools are going to reopen in full in the autumn — that is not up for debate.”

Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths, a senior research fellow at University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care and lead author of the study, said if test and trace was “not done effectively or adequately, then there is a risk of an occurrence of a second wave later this year”.

“There is a potential to have a surge in new infections,” she said.

She and colleagues reached the conclusion by modelling the wider effects of opening schools, including more people returning to workplaces.

Chris Bonell, professor of public health sociology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “Reopening schools fully in September, alongside reopening workplaces in society, without an effective test, trace, isolating strategy could result in a second wave of infections between two and 2.3 times the size of the original wave.”

There is a growing consensus that children are less likely to pass on the disease. An Australian study published yesterday looked at the findings from contact tracing which showed that the risk of transmission among school pupils was very low.

However, that is not the only risk. Dr Panovska-Griffiths’s modelling paper, published in the journal Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, also looked at wider effects.

“As you reopen schools, more parents go back to work, and you reopen other bits of society,” Russell Viner, professor of adolescent health, from UCL, said. “That’s why this is about schools and society.”

David Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy on Covid-19, warned that if test and trace were “not done properly, then you get very bad surges occurring”.

He told Today on BBC Radio 4: “This virus is capable of surging back really quickly and is actually doing so in most countries where there’s been success at getting it under control and, as it surges back, the way you stop outbreaks developing is through having well-functioning contact tracing linked to testing, with isolation of people who’ve got symptoms or who’ve been in contact.

“If we can do that, and do it well, then the surges are kept really small, they’re dealt with quickly and life can go on.

“If, on the other hand, this testing and tracing and isolation just is not done properly, then you get very bad surges occurring and this will lead to economic challenges.”

Tony Blair, the former prime minister, told Times Radio that the government needed to appoint “one senior political figure” to build mass testing capacity. “We’re not using all the capacity we have,” he said.

Meanwhile ministers are considering sending testing squads into schools in areas of high infection to try to keep them open even during local lockdowns.

Regular checks for pupils and teachers with no symptoms in hotspot areas are being considered as ministers hope to use on-the-spot testing machines to douse local flare-ups.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said that technology that gave results in 90 minutes would allow much more widespread testing in schools to hunt down and control the virus.

“In schools, currently we have survey testing, so we have some testing.

“That would be able to be expanded. But also, looking across the community, we want to test people who don’t have symptoms to find out where the virus is.”

Routine regular testing of all pupils and staff nationwide is considered impractical. Ministers are instead looking at a targeted approach, focusing on areas at greatest risk.

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