One in five contacts reported to the coronavirus test and trace programme by individuals who have tested positive are untraceable, an official from one of the companies managing the system has admitted.
NHS England’s Test and Trace – considered vital in reducing the transmission rate of the virus – relies on identifying people who have been in contact with an infected person and urging them to self-isolate.
Rupert Soames, chief executive of the outsourcing company Serco, which is among several firms recruiting, coaching and managing contact traces, said that 20 per cent of the contacts provided are untraceable due to a lack of information.
His comments highlight the importance of a nationwide contact tracing app, which could potentially track strangers who have come into close proximity with a person who has tested positive for the virus using Bluetooth.
Ministers have so far failed to put a date on the introduction of an app across the country and Baroness Dido Harding, who is leading NHS England’s Test and Trace programme, has previously described the technology as “the cherry on the cake rather than the cake itself”.
Pressed on the number of contacts being reached, Mr Soames told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he added: "I think we need to get this into proportion. You're giving me the numbers saying that we're tracing 50 per cent of contacts, let me tell you that 96 per cent of the people that we talk to agree to self-isolate.
The chief executive claimed that 218,000 individuals had been contacted by Serco, adding: “So we’ve got a very, very high success rate of people that we get to contact.”
Questioned again on why tracers are still only managing to get hold of half of people's contacts, Mr Soames said: "If somebody rang you now and I said: 'Tell me everybody that you have met, been in contact with, in the last 48 hours, and tell me on the telephone, give me their contact details', how many do you think that you'd be able to reel off of the top of your head?
"And the fact is that about 20 per cent of the contacts that people give us say: 'I know I sat next to somebody on a bus on the way in but I don't have their contact details. I'm sorry, but my brother-in-law brought around a friend last night, I don't have their contact details.'
"So there is an element of that, and it is about 20 per cent at the moment where people can't remember or never knew the contact... the details of where they were."
Munira Wilson, a Liberal Democrat MP, said: "As the government began relaxing rules, they should have been anticipating a potential second wave and had an effective test and trace system in place. Instead we have seen no app in England, and a test and trace system that is not fit for purpose yet.”
The remarks from Mr Soames also comes after professor John Edmunds, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), criticised the ineffective nature of the NHS Test and Trace scheme.
Asked about Boris Johnson’s claim to have a “world beating” track and trace system to tackle the virus spreading, he told BBC Newsnight: “Honestly I couldn’t care less whether it’s world beating or not. I just want it to be virus beating – and it’s not.”
He added that the system is “quite clunky” and takes a considerable amount of time to get the information out of individuals about their contacts.
“They might give the initial information then start to get a bit sick of the whole process and give up,” he said. “I think that’s a problem – a problem for just collecting the data. They collect metrics about how well they are doing, the NHS test and trace, but as epidemiologists we kind of want other metrics to be measured and they are not really doing that at the moment.”