Health group warns Sheffield faces ‘endless cycle of lockdowns’ after Test and Trace ‘disaster’

Sheffield faces further deaths and an ‘endless cycle of lockdowns’ unless a more localised approach is taken to the ‘lethally misdirected’ Test and Trace system, an independent group of retired NHS professionals has warned.

Thursday, 12th November 2020, 3:10 pm

Sheffield Community Contact Tracers argue that the city and the rest of the country are in lockdown because the current Test and Trace system failed to control outbreaks of the virus over the summer - and a third lockdown will follow in the New Year without effective contact tracing throughout December.

The group, made up of around 50 retired NHS doctors and volunteers, have branded the £12bn ‘centralised and remote’ system a ‘disaster’ that ‘fails to isolate around less than five per cent’ of contacts.

Before the system was introduced nationally, SCCT conducted an independent study from April to May to determine the feasibility of a volunteer-staffed ‘community’ contact tracing service- which they say is the only way to control outbreaks effectively.

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

The scheme found that contact tracing was enhanced by a number of factors include trust, contact in a timely manner and local knowledge.

‘We’re swimming in a sea of half truths’

Speaking on behalf of the group, Dr Bing Jones said that people were ‘swimming in a sea of half truths’ and that an effective contact tracing system is something ‘we all need to shout about’ in order to avoid ‘an endless cycle of lockdowns’.

He told the Star: “The biggest problem is that the current system has been designed by people who are commercial and politician led, not NHS professionals. It is a privatised system that should either be run by the NHS or renamed.

The government's Test and Trace app is displayed on a handheld device (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

"It also starts too late and misses an enormous amount of people. For instance, we know that up to half of people don’t display symptoms.

"Then there are people that don’t want to be tested as they can’t afford a positive result- they might lose income or have family commitments.

"The system then loses another 20 to 30 per cent of people who show a false negative result.

"Therefore if you take 100 infectious people, the current Test and Trace system is probably only isolating around five per cent of them.

Nurses instruct and help NHS workers as they self swab for coronavirus at a drive through testing site in Sheffield (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

“This is the worst situation the world has been in since perhaps the war. We are at a very low point.

"We have to be realistic- the Test and Trace app has only been downloaded by a proportion of the population and probably hasn’t contributed much at all.

"The vaccine, while hopeful, might not help very much either. But the one thing we do know that works is old-fashioned hard work in controlling outbreaks through this localised approach and a long chain of actions.”

‘FIND, TEST, TRACE, ISOLATE AND SUPPORT’

According to Independent Sage, who the group follow and work closely with, this long chain of actions is outlined as FIND, TEST, TRACE, ISOLATE and SUPPORT.

“The current system is far too slow, and the whole thing has to be done very quickly,” added Dr Bing Jones.

“The government is obsessed with testing- but only talk about capacity, rather than numbers, and this is just one link in the chain. Testing does nothing to control Covid-19.

“Another key word here is ‘support’. It is incredibly difficult to isolate for two weeks, especially for those who can’t afford the loss of income or have family problems.

"I know there is help available in terms of income from the government, but it’s limited and can be hard to access.

"Only one in five of the contacts found via the current system isolates effectively and usually far too late. A local service would allow us to provide enhanced support.

"It would also allow us to actively liaise with seldom-heard people in ethnic minority and refugee groups, who are just as affected but more unlikely to come forward for testing and help.”

‘Without local resources, we simply won't be able to control outbreaks’

The next step would be for the government to ‘empower’ the local authority to launch a local Test and Trace system, said Dr Bing Jones.

"We have a good public health service led by the local authority, but it only has a token role in Test ad Trace,” he added.

"It needs more money, information and power to find outbreaks while they're small enough to control.

"Our pilot scheme shows that volunteers can be trained in fairly large numbers and quickly in order to carry out contact tracing as part of a local effort.

”People are a lot more trusting of these local contacts, allowing us to reach out to the people we need to.

“The people of Sheffield need to realise that without more local resources, we simply won't be able to control outbreaks and tackle this disease.

According to the latest figures, around 60.4 per cent of close contacts of people who tested positive for Covid-19 in England were reached through the Test and Trace system in the week ending November 4.

This is up very slightly from 60.2 per cent in the previous week and is also just above the all-time low of 60.1 per cent for the week to October 14.

But for cases managed by local health protection teams, 99.1 per cent per cent of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate in the week to November 4.

NHS Test and Trace not a ‘silver bullet’ against Covid, says head of programme

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt questioned the impact of NHS Test and Trace saying it only reached a fraction of the estimated cases, largely due to asymptomatic people not being captured by the scheme.

Mr Hunt suggested as few as 3 per cent of those who should be in quarantine were actually staying at home.

He said the proportion was certainly not above 20 pet cent but Baroness Dido Harding, head of NHS Test and Trace, replied: “If it’s a tool that contributes to 20 per cent plus of our fight against Covid, then it’s a hugely valuable and important tool. I don't think there is a single silver bullet.”

Find out more about Sheffield Community Contact Tracers via Twitter at https://twitter.com/SheffieldCCT and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SheffieldCCT.

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a digital subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Nancy Fielder, editor.