Isolation for test and trace could be halved

Edward Malnick
·4-min read
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks from 10 Downing Street to a meeting with his ministers at the Foreign Office, in London, Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham) - Matt Dunham/PA
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks from 10 Downing Street to a meeting with his ministers at the Foreign Office, in London, Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham) - Matt Dunham/PA
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

The 14-day isolation period for contacts of those infected with Covid-19 could be halved over fears about levels of compliance with the Test and Trace system, The Telegraph can disclose. 

Officials on Boris Johnson's Covid-19 taskforce are examining the case for cutting the fortnight period of isolation to between seven and ten days.

The disclosure comes amid rising concern among ministers and Tory backbenchers about the effectiveness of Test and Trace, with the Prime Minister said to have become "disillusioned" with official statistics provided by the service, after some were later proved to be incorrect.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, the chairman of the liaison committee of select committee chairs, has becomes the most senior Conservative to break ranks over the running of the contact tracing service, as Tory concerns boiled over.

In a stark article for The Telegraph, Sir Bernard describes a "vacuum of leadership in Test and Trace, which is destroying cooperation and compliance".

Criticising the handling of contact tracing calls, data management, and a "spaghetti of command and control" at the top of the organisation, he calls for Baroness Harding, the Conservative peer at its helm, to be "given a well-earned break" and moved on to focus on "lessons learned".

Dido Harding - HENRY NICHOLLS /REUTERS
Dido Harding - HENRY NICHOLLS /REUTERS

Sir Bernard, usually seen as a No 10 loyalist, writes: "Announcing fresh targets (now 500,000 tests a day by the end of October) does not instil confidence, because people lack faith that there is a coherent plan.

"Instead, ministers should see this as an opportunity to make changes, to show we are all learning from experience. This change must be visible and decisive ... the immediate priority is to fill the vacuum of leadership in Test and Trace."

Separately, voicing mounting concern among Tory backbenchers, Mark Harper, a former chief whip, said: "The contact tracing simply isn't good enough.

"We need to shift resources to local public health teams to get it performing where it needs to be to prevent further lockdowns. We are running out of time to make it work properly."

However, Mr Harper said responsibility for the system's current shortcomings should sit with ministers, stating: "When I was a minister that was certainly the level of accountability that the then PM [David Cameron] expected of me. I was clear who he held responsible and it wasn't my officials."

A No 10 source said the review of the 14-day self-isolation period derived from growing concerns about insufficient numbers of people following the rules.

Currently, anyone who tests positive for Covid-19 is usually asked to self-isolate for at least 10 days, while a 14-day period applies to those who live with someone with symptoms, or have been asked to self-isolate by Test and Trace.

A No 10 source said: "Compliance is not as high as we would like and self-isolation is key if we are going to beat the virus."

Possible outcomes could include offering people tests after a week in isolation, with the quarantine period ended following a negative result. The system could be aligned with plans being drawn up for a testing regime aimed to cut the current quarantine period for travellers arriving in the UK.

Last week, the Test and Trace system hit a record low, with official data showing that only 59.6 per cent of contacts of those testing positive for Covid-19 were reached by tracers and asked to self-isolate.

An MP said Mr Johnson has become "disillusioned" with the "reliability" of Test and Trace statistics and an ally of the Prime Minister added: "Some of the statistical work has a habit of unwinding."

Mr Harper said that, taking into account the number of those testing positive that the system was failing to reach,  less than 50 per cent of those found to have the virus are actually being traced and asked to isolate. Given scientists have said the proportion needs to reach 80 per cent "that is a significant deficit," he said.

Would you report your neighbour for breaking self-isolation rules
Would you report your neighbour for breaking self-isolation rules

A Department of Health spokesman said: “Dido Harding and her leadership team – drawn from the military, public and private sectors – have built the largest diagnostic industry the UK has ever seen. It is the equivalent of building an operation the size of Tesco in a matter of months.

“The NHS Test and Trace system has built a testing capacity of 400,000 tests a day, from a starting point of 2,000 a day in March.

"This capacity is bigger per head than France, Germany, Italy and Spain and we have contacted over 1.1 million people and asked them to self-isolate. We need to improve in areas and we are very much focused on that, but we should be talking it up, not down.

“Fighting Covid-19 requires everyone to play their part, if you have symptoms you should get tested and self-isolate.”