Test and trace 'ditched in February as systems could only cope with 5 cases a week'

31 May 2020, 08:11 | Updated: 31 May 2020, 08:22

Testing and tracing was abandoned in the UK in February as PHE systems couldn't cope
Testing and tracing was abandoned in the UK in February as PHE systems couldn't cope. Picture: PA

By Kate Buck

Public Health England abandoned a test and trace policy in February after realising their systems could only manage five new cases each week, new documents have shown.

Newly released papers from the Scientific Advisor Group on Emergencies (Sage), seen by the Telegraph, said that those five cases could generate up to 8,000 contacts who needed to be informed to isolate.

Modelling then suggested that at its max, 50 cases could be tracked each week.

Advisors on Sage then agreed it would be "sensible" to stop routine testing, despite acknowledging it would "generate a public reaction".

The ending of routine testing for those showing symptoms of Covid-19 came on 12 March, when Boris Johnson announce that anyone who had symptoms needed to stay home for a week.

But as the number of infections continued to rage, the government has slowly brought in widespread testing, and last week Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that anyone who shows symptoms can now be tested.

The Test and Trace systems were brought in last week
The Test and Trace systems were brought in last week. Picture: PA

The government's official Test and Trace scheme was launched this week, but has been dogged with claims from those working for it that their systems are not up to scratch and a "critical incident" was declared when the website crashed on its first day.

Minutes from the Sage meeting on 18 February said: “Currently PHE can cope with five new cases a week (requiring isolation of 800 contacts).

"Modelling suggests this capacity could be increased to 50 new cases a week (8,000 contact isolations) but this assumption needs to be stress tested with PHE operational colleagues.”

It added: “When there is sustained transmission in the UK, contact tracing will no longer be useful.”

The UK has suffered more than 38,000 deaths from coronavirus so far, making it the worst hit country in Europe and the second highest in the world.

More than a quarter of a million people have been tested positive for the disease, although the true number is thought to be much, much higher than this.

Despite Boris Johnson's desire for a four-nation approach to the pandemic, each country in the UK has adopted their own strategy to handling the crisis.

In England, schools are set to open on Monday to Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 Primary school pupils, and non-essential shops will re-open on 15 June.

But some experts from Sage have warned this may be coming too soon, and Professor Jonathan Van-Tam has urged people to show caution to the relaxation.

He told the daily Downing Street press conference that the Government and the public had a "dual responsibility" to prevent a second wave of the virus, adding: "I believe this is also a very dangerous moment. We have to get this right."

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