Jeremy Hunt: For truly effective virus tracing we need better tech and to move faster

Jeremy Hunt: Chris McAndrew / UK Parliament

No Government can be expected to get everything right first time when dealing with a completely new disease like coronavirus, but you do need to be fleet of foot when you can see what works elsewhere.

So it is fantastic news that the NHS test and trace service is up and running. Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong all used versions of the same approach and not just had lower death rates but also avoided shutting down their economies.

With no vaccine or cure we are by no means not out of the woods — but the fact we are adopting this approach is the best news yet in our battle against the virus.

Full credit too to the Government — it would not have been possible to do this without the massive expansion of testing capacity they set in train in April. And we need to go further still. Under this programme we will test every single person who gets Covid symptoms. But we also need to introduce weekly testing of frontline NHS and care staff so reaching the Prime Minister’s target of 200,000 tests daily — and indeed going further — will be critical.

But if we really are going to learn from best practice in other countries, we need to do two further things.

Firstly we must get the much-vaunted NHS app working. We can never be dependent on technology — even in hi-tech Singapore less than a quarter of the population has downloaded their app. But technology can play a vital role. Firstly in alerting people electronically if they have been near someone who has tested positive for coronavirus so they know to self-isolate. But secondly to allow people to report any symptoms — fever, cough, loss of taste or smell — on a daily basis.

This can be used both for people who have been asked to self-isolate under track and trace and for people quarantining after arriving from abroad. When my sister returned to her home in

Beijing last month she had to input her and her children’s temperatures three times daily onto an app — giving the health authorities an incredibly accurate picture of who might or might not have the virus. We need that laser-like knowledge here, and until we have an app that meets the highest international standards — all the while respecting concerns on privacy — we will not be able to do that.

We also need to massively speed up the turnaround of tests. At the moment the median time to get results is just under 48 hours. But in many cases I’ve heard about it can take much longer. One care home in my constituency tested all its staff and found three tested positive. It then took over a week to get the test results back for residents.

Another had to redo their tests because they were not picked up, and the whole process took more than two weeks. But the most important reason we need fast turnaround is for the contact tracing itself to work. We will only be asking close contacts to isolate if someone they have been near has tested positive. But if that test takes 48 hours or longer, any contacts who are infected will have more time to pass on the virus.

At the moment the whole process of ordering the test, getting the result and tracing contacts could take up to five days. The Royal Society estimates any contact tracing system is three times more effective at reducing new infections if that is reduced to three days.

To do that we need 24-hour turnaround of tests, as they have in South Korea and Taiwan. I asked the Prime Minister on Wednesday whether he would commit to that and he said he agreed. But he was not prepared to give a date. We know that what galvanised the system to increase testing capacity in April was when Matt Hancock was prepared to give a date — we need to do the same now.

We won’t be able to deliver a ‘world-beating’ system if our tests take twice as long to process as the best places

The Prime Minister has promised us a “world beating” test and trace system — but we won’t deliver that if our tests take twice as long to process as the best places in the world.

Many may say these things are logistically impossible — to which I would say why? When we built a Nightingale Hospital in 10 days and increased our testing capacity 10-fold in four weeks we showed just what is possible in a national crisis. Time to do the same again to make our track and trace system truly among the best in the world.

  • Jeremy Hunt was health secretary from 2012-2018