Track and trace debacle as testing chief tells MPs she doesn't know how many new cases have had contacts found

Henry Bodkin
dido harding
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

The head of NHS test and trace has been criticised by MPs for refusing to disclose what proportion of new coronavirus cases are having their contacts tracked.

Baroness Dido Harding repeatedly declined to disclose the figure to the Health Committee on Tuesday, arguing that it was “not validated” and therefore could be misleading.

The row follows reports of leaked documents indicating that fewer than half of those whose details have been handed to the new organisation have been contacted.

The success of the scheme as a route out of lockdown depends upon the speed with which staff can identify and get in touch with people who have recently come into close contact with new Covid-19 patients, in order to tell them to isolate.

Baroness Harding said that “thousands” had been contacted within the first six days of the scheme.

But Jeremy Hunt, chair of the committee and a former health secretary, warned her that failing to disclose what proportion of new cases had had their contacts traced within 24 hours could “destroy confidence in it [test and trace] because it will make people think that actually the reason the data is not being shared is because it’s not terribly good”.

In response, the former CEO of TalkTalk cited a warning from the UK Statistics Authority to Matt Hancock on xxx over alleged sloppy use of figures as justification for suppressing the new figures.

“I just think it’s really important that we give you validated data and I don’t think there’s any citizen service of this scale that would launch and within six days share 24-hours turnaround data.”

Despite promising a weekly “dashboard” of data on the scheme, she would not guarantee that this would include the crucial 24-hour data asked for my MPs.

Declaring himself “quite disappointed”, Mr Hunt said: “We were told it was going to be a world beating system when it was launched and I don't think it's unreasonable for us to ask quite simple questions like what proportion of new cold cases have been contacted within 24 hours.”

Baroness Harding also suggested to the committee that the system would work better if more people with possible symptoms of Covid-19 came forward for a test.

Only 1,600 people received a positive diagnosis on Tuesday, despite Office for National Statistics figures indicating that there are at least 8,000 new cases a day, she said.

"Now, we have excess testing capacity, and we have excess tracing capacity, so the capacity in the system is not the issue," she said.

"What we need to do together as a society is encourage everyone, if they feel ill and they have a cough and fever or lost their sense of taste or smell that they self-isolate and order a test."

Polling has shown that only 44 per cent of adults knew that all adults were eligible for a test, she added.

Baroness Harding attracted intense public scrutiny in 2015 when, while in charge of the company, mobile phone provider TalkTalk suffered one of the worst data breaches in UK corporate history.

Following probing from MPs yesterday, she said that “as I understand it”, no personal data collected from test and trace and its accompanying NHS app, which is being rolled out nationwide having been trialled in the Isle of Wight, would be viewed by anyone not working for the Department of Health.

She also refused to rule out individuals being ordered to isolate on multiple occasions, saying the onus woul be on them, and employers, to ensure proper social distancing.

On Wednesday night at the Downing Street press conference Boris Johnsonsaid: "NHS Test and Trace will be vital to controlling the spread of the virus.”

He urged anyone with symptoms to seek a test.