The coronavirus test-and-trace system could be jeopardised by delays in obtaining test results, the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has warned, as the government’s scientific advisers prepare to assess its effectiveness.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) is expected to grill the test-and-trace boss, Dido Harding, on Thursday amid concerns about whether the system will be robust enough to check the spread of the disease and allow the easing of lockdown measures from 1 June.
Hunt, who has repeatedly called for “test, track and isolate” to be implemented, warned that a well-functioning system required test results to be rapidly obtainable. “For test and trace to work, you have to get the test results back quickly, and that will mean ironing out a lot of the problems that currently exist, with people waiting too long for their test results,” he said.
The Department of Health and Social Care says 97% of test results are obtained within 48 hours. But health and care providers complain of much longer waits – in some cases a week or more.
A spokesperson for the National Care Forum said this week: “The speed at which test results are returned varies widely. For the majority of testing routes for staff and residents, this is between 24 hours and six days.
The NHS Providers chief executive, Chris Hopson, has described testing availability as a “patchwork quilt”, saying it has improved significantly, but some trusts are still reporting delays of five days – or in one case as long as 13 days.
“I have great confidence that by 1 June we will have a system that will enable us, help us, very greatly to defeat this disease and move the country forward,” the prime minister said.
But insiders confirmed that the NHSX contact tracing app is not due to be rolled out nationally until early June at the earliest. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, had said it would be ready to be deployed in “mid-May”.
A team of 50 developers have been working to iron out a range of technical issues, the most important of which is said to be the core algorithm, which will determine who to alert if somebody reports feeling unwell, based on how much time and how physically close nearby people were.
They insist they are still wedded to a centralised model in which information about who a person’s phone has been close to is uploaded to a special database.
Apple and Google released their alternative, decentralised version on Wednesday, which they said had been taken up by 22 countries on five continents. The two companies also said they were working with the UK, which was described as evaluating a number of alternative models. But NHS sources said they had no plans to change direction for now.
Harding, a former chief executive of the telecoms firm TalkTalk, was appointed this month to oversee the app and the tracing system as a whole. She is also the chair of the watchdog NHS Improvement.
It is understood that Sage experts have modelled the parameters for an effective test-and-track regime in detail, and the impact it would have on controlling future outbreaks.
No decision is expected to be made by the experts until next week about whether they can recommend a move to phase two of the government’s lockdown lifting plan, under which schools will be encouraged to welcome more pupils, and some non-essential shops will reopen.
But the decision is contingent on the availability of robust control measures, including a functioning track-and-trace system.
The deputy chief scientific adviser, Angela McLean, said on Tuesday: “Scientists have been clear in our advice that changes to lockdown as we modelled them need a highly effective track, trace and isolate system to be in place.”
Sage is also preparing to publish more papers in the next fortnight. The chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, who chairs the committee, is keen to improve transparency around decision-making. Vallance has repeatedly promised that scientific evidence about the safety of reopening schools to more pupils will be published.
The shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, wrote to Hancock on Wednesday urging him to set out more details about how the test and trace system will operate. He questioned whether the 25,000 people hired in recent weeks would be enough.
“We must recruit enough tracers to succeed. We’re pleased the government has accepted our argument that 18,000 tracers were never going to be enough. Experts have suggested 50,000 or more would be most effective,” he said.
Ashworth said the government should provide for “widespread, regular community testing”. He called for local directors of public health to be put in charge of the system, which should be “properly integrated with local primary care services” so that GPs can order and carry out tests for their patients.
At prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, challenged Johnson over the government’s failure to track the spread of the disease after mid-March. “That’s nearly 10 weeks in a critical period without effective tracing. That’s a huge hole in our defences, isn’t it prime minister?” he said.