Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned he will make it a legal requirement to self-isolate if people don’t follow advice given by NHS Test and Trace.
Figures today revealed that the system is getting worse and call handlers reached a record low of just 72.6 per cent of infected patients last week.
It’s the fifth week in a row the number of Covid-19 cases tracked has fallen, dropping from the best performance of 82.8 per cent in the week ending July 22.
Department of Health data also showed a third of people who tested positive and were referred to the system between August 13 and 19 were not reached within 24 hours.
It’s crucial for the system to work rapidly, so that close contacts of Covid-19 cases who may unknowingly have the virus are tracked down and told to self isolate before they can spread the infection further.
In another blow, only 75.5 per cent of close contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate, meaning the government has missed its 80 per cent target — set by SAGE in order to keep the virus under control — for the ninth week in a row.
It comes as Matt Hancock today defended his plan to pay people on low incomes £13 a day to self-isolate, even though critics said the payments would not be enough to stop people going to work.
The Health Secretary Matt Hancock also acknowledged the Test and Trace system was ‘not quite there’, before the figures were published.
And he said the rules could be enforced by law if people don’t co-operate, refusing to rule out visiting people at home to check if they were isolating.
The figures today also add to evidence that Britain’s outbreak is not spiralling out of control as feared, with the number of positive cases dropping almost nine per cent in a week.
A total of 6,115 people were diagnosed between August 13 and 19, down from 6,656 the week before.
The Government’s Test and Trace system is getting worse as figures today revealed that call handlers reached a record-low of just 72.6 per cent of infected patients last week
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he wouldn’t rule out enforcing self-isolating by law if people didn’t follow advice given to them by NHS Test and Trace
HANCOCK DEFENDS HIS PLAN TO PAY £13 A DAY TO BRITONS SELF-ISOLATING
Matt Hancock today launched a furious defence of his plan to pay people on low incomes £13 a day to self-isolate as critics said the payments would not be enough to stop people going to work.
From September 1 people who receive Universal Credit or Working Tax Credit who are required to self-isolate, who are unable to work from home and who are in Covid-19 hotspots will benefit from the new payment scheme.
Eligible people who test positive for the virus will receive £130 for their 10-day period of self-isolation while other members of their household, who under current rules must isolate for 14 days, will get £182.
The scheme will initially be trialled in Blackburn with Darwen, Pendle and Oldham – areas which are currently subject to local lockdown measures.
The Government hopes the payments will boost compliance with requests from NHS Test and Trace for people to stay at home, with Mr Hancock pointing out the money will be ‘in addition’ to other benefits.
But critics believe the payments are far too small and many people will still feel that they cannot afford to stay at home.
This represents 1.4 and 1.5 per cent of all tests taken, respectively, proving that cases have not fallen just as a result of less testing.
Of those cases, 72.6 per cent were reached by call handlers. In comparison, the rate was 79 per cent the week before. Data also shows it is even worse than the 73.4 per cent recorded in the first week of the scheme.
Of those who were contacted, only 69.7 per cent were reached within 24 hours. Five per cent weren’t tracked down for at least three days.
Some 75.9 per cent gave at least one phone number of a close contact, a figure that has dropped every week since mid-July.
Matt Hancock said on Times Radio today: ‘By and large we do think the majority of people are following these instructions.
‘But obviously we keep that under review as well, including how we enforce it.
‘We’ve done it without making it a legal requirement as yet, but we don’t rule out making those sorts of changes if we need to.’
He confirmed that the Government will now offer money to some people to help them cover the costs of staying off work.
But house visits could be part of the way this is enforced, he said.
‘We want to obviously have as high a proportion self isolating as possible,’ Mr Hancock said.
‘The goal is to get to 80 per cent. We are in the 70s.
‘This is one of the reasons we are starting [the payment scheme] in Oldham, Blackburn and Pendle – they are the three areas in the country with the highest rates that are in the highest level of local lockdown and we are working very closely with the local authorities who have the boots on the ground, the people who go an knock on doors if we can get hold of somebody by phone.
‘This is the first step in paying people to self isolate. We will monitor how effective it is. I don’t rule anything out. But we want to get the system working.’
In a more positive development, 75.5 per cent of close contacts were reached in the most recent week, up from 71.6 per cent in the previous week.
But it’s still a dramatically lower number than the 91.1 per cent of cases who were reached in the first week of launching, on May 28.
Experts suspect that people do not pick up the phone to contact tracers because it is an unrecognised number.
Head of the NHS Test and Trace Baroness Dido Harding, said England ‘now has the capacity to test for coronavirus and trace contacts on an unprecedented scale’.
She said today: ‘This week marks a milestone for NHS Test and Trace, which has now been in operation for more than three months.
‘The statistics published today show every week we consistently reach the majority of people testing positive and their contacts, and have now reached almost 300,000 people who may have unknowingly passed the virus on.
‘We will continue to build the service further to reach more and more people and to scale up our testing capacity.
‘I urge everyone to use NHS Test and Trace to help everyone get back to a more normal way of life.’
Danny Mortimer, deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: ‘The latest test and trace figures show a yo-yo effect with vital improvements in some areas balanced out by steps back in others.’
The proportion of recent close contacts handled by call centres that were contacted
More people are being referred to the NHS tracing system reflecting an increase in cases
Testing turnaround times have also dipped since the record high at the start of July. But they are starting to improve for home test kits and satellite centres
FLU JABS ARE AT A LOW AMID FEARS OF INFLUENZA AND COVID-19 COINCIDING THIS WINTER
The number of vulnerable people getting free flu jabs in England is at an eight-year low, raising fears of an outbreak coinciding with a second wave of coronavirus.
Last winter just 45 per cent of people under 65 with serious health conditions, who are offered the vaccine for free on the NHS, received the jab.
This has tumbled from a peak of 52.3 per cent in the winter of 2013 and is the worst uptake since Public Health England’s records began in 2012.
This year the Government is organising the biggest ever flu vaccination programme for the UK, pledging to offer them to 30million people, including everyone over the age of 50 and 11-year-olds.
Officials hope that covering more of the at-risk groups with a flu jab will mean fewer people get seriously ill with the winter virus, which will relieve pressure on hospitals that are expected to face a resurgence of Covid-19 cases.
But getting vaccinated against the flu is not compulsory and more than half of vulnerable adults currently do not take up the offer.
Coverage is better among the elderly, around three-quarters of whom get the vaccine, but the NHS also recommends it for pregnant women, diabetics, those with serious illnesses like heart disease, children and severely overweight people.
Thousands of people end up in hospital every year because of bad cases of flu, which can progress to pneumonia and kill people who already have weak immune systems.
In a bid to avoid this, and to protect the NHS while it prepares to deal with a second wave of coronavirus, the UK Government is this year hoping to scale up its flu jab programme to include a staggering 30million people – almost half the population.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has boasted officials ‘have bought more flu vaccine than ever before’.
But for the drive to work it will rely on people agreeing to be vaccinated and going to get it done at their local doctor’s surgery.
Experts say that low uptake may in part be due to people not taking seriously the flu viruses, which circulate every winter and is mild for many people.
‘People think the flu is not that bad… even for people who are in the risk groups,’ Dr Tonia Thomas, of Oxford University’s Vaccine Knowledge Trust, told the BBC.
‘They are leading healthy lives in terms of day-to-day living. I have spoken to patients who say they forgot they are in a risk group.
‘It is only when they contract an infection that they realise their body responds differently to other people’s.’
Local health protection teams showed to have a higher success rate than the centralised system once again, proving that a ‘boots on ground’ approach is more effective for contact tracing.
Some 95.6 per cent of close contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate in the week to August 19, compared to 61.6 per cent of cases handled by call centres.
Various local authority councils took matters into their own hands and launched local contact-tracing operations to supplement the national system, before ministers offered local systems extra resources to strengthen their response.
The figures also show test turnaround times between 13 and 19 August have fallen.
Just one fifth of tests from all test sites were received within 24 hours of a test being taken.
The number of people who got their result returned in 24 hours after visiting a regional testing site — mostly drive-throughs — was the worst yet.
Almost two-thirds (63.5 per cent) were still waiting for their result after 24 hours, up from 42.2 per cent the week before and 8 per cent in the week ending July 1.
But at last, the 24-hour target was improved for satellite test centres — places like hospitals and care homes that urgently need results — and home kits after weeks of dismal figures.
But still only 5.9 and 6.4 per cent of people in those testing categories got their result back in 24 hours.
The PM had pledged that, by the end of June, the results of 100 per cent of all in-person tests would be back within 24 hours.
Experts say getting test results fast and carrying out contact tracing immediately is vital to stopping the spread of coronavirus because there is only a short window to alert people that they are at risk of infecting others without yet knowing they’re ill.
But those who take a home test kit now have to wait 71 hours on average to find out if they have Covid-19.
The average amount of time it takes for test results to come back from all routes has increased, apart from those done at satellite test centres.
Fears of a second wave have grown over the past month, with official data showing the average number of daily cases has doubled since mid-July. Growing outbreaks in Europe have also spooked ministers.
But the Department of Health figures and separate data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which tracks the size of the outbreak through swab tests of thousands of people, suggest that the number of cases is shrinking.
Last week it claimed 2,400 people are catching the virus in England each day, down 37 per cent on the week before.
Statisticians claimed the outbreak has ‘levelled off’. For comparison, the ONS estimated that around 4,200 people were getting infected each day at the end of July.
However, a senior government source told journalists last Friday that data on growth rates and R values suggest cases are ‘trending upwards, very gently’.
The official said: ‘We are not seeing fast increase here, but I do think we are on a positive slope and its gently increasing.’
SAGE warned the reproduction rate — the average number of people each coronavirus patient infects — could now be above the dreaded level of one.
The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) estimates the R value is now between 0.9 and 1.1. Experts say the R needs to stay below one or Governments risk losing control of the epidemic and the virus could start to spread exponentially again.
But the estimate is based on three week old data due to the lag in time between Covid-19 patients falling ill and appearing in the statistics, meaning it does not paint a real-time picture of the UK’s current epidemic.
And it can be skewed upwards by local clusters of infections, which has been seen in swathes of the North West of England.
The Office for National Statistics estimates 2,400 people are contracting the disease every day, down 37 per cent from the 3,800 the previous week