There have been fresh calls for an overhaul of the government’s floundering test and trace service, after an advert was placed seeking a £2,000-a-day head of operations with experience of turning round “failing” call centres.
The job ad was posted online as the test and trace system in England recorded its lowest-ever contact figures and prime minister Boris Johnson admitted it needed improving.
But Department of Health chiefs scrambled to take it down and redraft it, insisting that its wording had not been requested or approved by the government.
It came amid growing clamour for test, trace and isolate operations to be transferred from a network of private companies under the leadership of Conservative peer Dido Harding and handed to established local council and NHS public health teams.
Official figures released on Thursday showed that in the week ending 14 October, the test and trace programme managed to get in touch with fewer than 60 per cent of people identified as close contacts of coronavirus patients, in order to tell them to self-isolate – well below the 80 per cent level needed for the system to be effective.
A total of 251,613 people in England were identified as coming into close contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19 – yet only 59.6 per cent were reached and asked to self-isolate
For cases handled by local health protection teams, 94.8 per cent of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate. But for cases processed online or by call centres by tracers recruited by private companies such as Serco, this figure was 57.6 per cent.
At a press conference No 10, Mr Johnson insisted that the achievement of NHS Test and Trace in ramping up tests from 2,000 a day in the spring to 300,000 now was “colossal”, and insisted the system remained on track to meet its target of 500,000 by the end of this month.
But challenged over the new figures, he said: “I share people’s frustrations and I understand totally why we do need to see faster turnaround times and do need to improve it.”
The PM’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said that, while numbers of tests were being increased, shortcomings in the process of reaching contacts and getting them to self-isolate was “diminishing the effectiveness” of the system.
Prof Vallance said that it was “undoubtedly the case” that test, trace and isolate systems have less of an impact as numbers of infections in the community get higher.
He added: “I think the testing system has ramped up the numbers they are able to do quite effectively, but it's really important to concentrate on numbers of contacts, isolation as quickly as you can and getting things back as quickly as you can – ideally, to get the whole process done within 48 hours.
“It’s very clear there’s room for improvement on all of that and therefore that will be diminishing the effectiveness of this.”
Professor James Naismith, the director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, said the latest figures showed “a system struggling to make any difference to the epidemic”.
Prof Naismith raised concern over figures showing that 70 per cent of contacts identified by people testing positive were in their own households, suggesting “a tick box system rather than a proper tracing”. To be effective, the system should be reaching contacts from outside the household who may not know they have been exposed to possible infection, he said.
“The system has given a bird’s eye view of the pandemic and done very little to halt it,” said Prof Naismith. “It is for politicians to decide what to do about this.
“I would caution that new faces or more effort may sound attractive. However, getting an effective system over the summer was much easier than doing so now. It is not enough to say ‘we will work harder’ or ‘I alone can fix it’. If the system is to be made effective – and I have my doubts if this now possible – it will need a clear set of plans that explain what changes are being made and how these will fill in the holes that I and many others have spelt out.”
Since its establishment in May, there have been floods of stories of NHS Test and Trace contact tracers being given little to do, with staff saying that they made very few calls and often did little more than leave answerphone messages for the people they were supposed to be advising to self-isolate for 14 days.
Meanwhile, The Independent has revealed that the testing service has been forced to draft in untrained staff to carry out clinical assessments of patients infected with coroanvirus.
Leaked emails showed that, as of Wednesday, staff from outsourcing firms Serco and Sitel who have no clinical training will be working alongside nurses and clinical staff to help assess and contract trace approximately 20,000 cases each day.
The advert placed by recruitment agency Quast on behalf of the Department of Health and Social Care said the government was seeking a “very experienced and senior” person to deliver trace operations.
Running on business networking website LinkedIn, it said candidates must have “experience in running call centres of 18,000” and “experience (and evidence) of turning around failing call centres” and “quick wins”.
With pay of up to £2,000 a day on a contract running until the end of March, the new VP of operations would be working remotely and needs to be able to join the team and implement improvements “straight away”.
Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Munira Wilson said: "If only the secretary of state was as honest about the tracing system as this job advert was. This is a damning indictment of the department and will raise further questions about the government's handling of the pandemic.
"It's time Matt Hancock admitted that the test and trace system needs overhauling. Local authorities are best placed to improve the struggling test and trace system and the government must urgently must give them the funding to do so."
But a DHSC spokesperson said: “The text for this advert was not drafted or approved by the department. As part of our ongoing commitment to improve services we are recruiting experienced employees with a wide range of experience including driving high performance.
“To date, with the help of NHS Test and Trace call handlers, the service has contacted over one million people who may have been at risk of unwittingly spreading the virus.”
The new figures showed that test results were received within 24 hours by just 15.1 per cent of people who were tested for Covid-19 at a regional site, local site or mobile testing unit – down from 32.8 per cent in the previous week and the lowest weekly percentage since test and trace began.
Mr Johnson said as long ago as June that he wanted 100 per cent of in-person tests returned within 24 hours.
The data also showed the proportion of tests returning a positive result has climbed to 7.1 per cent for the week, the highest since test and trace began.
According to the World Health Organisation, a positivity rate of more than 5 per cent is an indication of insufficient testing being conducted.
A total of 101,494 people tested positive for Covid-19 in England at least once in the week to 14 October – a rise of 12 per cent in positive cases on the previous week.
And of 96,521 people transferred to the system, 80.7 per cent were reached and asked to provide details of recent close contacts.
Baroness Harding said that “strengthening” the programme’s partnerships with local public health teams would help to improve the speed at which people are traced and contacted in their communities.
“Reducing turnaround times is our absolute priority to make sure we are reaching people as soon as possible,” she said.
“We always need to balance ensuring as many people as possible can get a test alongside ensuring test results are delivered as quickly as possible, and as capacity continues to grow at pace, we expect to see improvements.”