The number of NHS contact tracers will be reduced by a third while the rest are set to be redeployed locally as the government appears to acknowledge that the national system, described as “world beating”, is not fit for purpose.
In an overhaul of the Test and Trace programme, the Department for Health and Social Care said it would cut the number of national contact tracers from 18,000 to 12,000 by 24 August – in two weeks’ time.
It follows intense criticism over the reach of the national centralised service, which was set up an awarded to private companies, and its failure to tap into local knowledge to tackle outbreaks of the coronavirus in England.
Last month, The Independent revealed the system was failing to reach more than half the contacts named by infected people in areas battling acute outbreaks of the virus.
On Monday, DHSC announced the NHS Test and Trace programme will now provide local authorities across England with a dedicated team of contact tracers to ensure that as many people as possible are being reached, in what the department described as a “new way of working” and a “more tailored service”.
“As the approach becomes more locally targeted the national service will adjust,” the department added. “NHS Test and Trace will reduce current extra capacity and reduce the number of non-NHS call handlers.
They continued: “Data on the virus continues to be actively monitored through PHE and the Joint Biosecurity Centre so that staff numbers can be quickly scaled up, or down, depending on requirements for the national service and as part of winter preparations.
“As a result the national service will move from 18,000 to 12,000 contact tracers on 24 August with remaining teams to be deployed as part of dedicated local Test and Trace teams.”
An effective system of contact tracing is widely viewed as critical in keeping down the transmission rate of the virus by reaching out to those who have come into close contact with an individual who has tested positive, and urging them to self-isolate for 10 days.
However, last week figures showed that thousands of people are still not being reached by the test and trace programme and the head of outsourcing company Serco, which employs over 10,000 of the tracers, admitted up to a fifth of contacts may be untraceable.
The data added that the national call centres were struggling to reach contacts, with only 56 per cent of close contacts handled online or by call centres were being reach and told to self-isolate to stop the spread of the virus.
In stark contrast, a local contact tracing system set up in Blackburn with Darwen council had reached 90 per cent of the people the government’s national system was failing to contact in an area with one of the worst Covid-19 infection rates.
In a statement, Baroness Dido Harding, the executive chair of NHS Test and Trace, said the system was “built rapidly, drawing on the UK’s existing health protection networks, to stop the spread of coronavirus”.
“At the height of the pandemic we ensured the system had extra capacity in place to cope with potential peaks in the virus,” she added. “We have always been clear that NHS Test and Trace must be local by default and that we do no operate alone – we work with and through partners across the country.
“After successful trials in a small number of local areas, I am very pleased to announce that we are now offering this integrated localised approach to all local authorities to ensure we can reach more people in their communities and stop the spread of Covid-19.”
Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrats’ health and social care spokesperson, said it was “good ministers have finally listened” o those calling for the NHS Test and Trace service to work more closely with local authorities.
She added: “However, these changes have not only been too slow, but they must also be properly resourced. The fact that it appears that there will be 6,000 fewer tracers is incredibly alarming.
“Given the multitude of mistakes made by central government throughout the pandemic, this move should not be an excuse for ministers to try and pass the blame should there be further issues with the tracing scheme. An inquiry must be launched now so that all levels of government can learn from the mistakes that have been made, and ensure they work together as effectively as possible to prevent further spread of the virus.”
Just last week Independent Sage – a group set up to mirror the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – urged ministers to completely rethink the test and trace strategy, claiming the centralised testing system “basically just isn’t good enough”.
“We believe it’s time to rethink the whole test and trace system,” Christina Pagel, director of clinical operational research at University College London, told journalists at a briefing on Friday.
“We’ve had the central system now for nine weeks, we’ve been following it, it hasn’t got any better … we think it’s time to invest those resources instead in local structures which are already being developed in some areas of England and the devolved nations.”