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Improve test and trace or face second wave?

By Gareth Jones
04 August 2020

By Gareth Jones, Newgate Public Affairs

Today saw the Government’s ‘test and trace’ programme back in the spotlight, along with two other contentious issues – the re-opening of schools and the prospect of a second wave. A study published in the Lancet this morning by academics from UCL and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine concluded that current testing and contact tracing measures are inadequate to prevent a second wave once schools reopen in September. 

The researchers used computer models to see how the virus might spread in the UK as pupils returned to the classroom and their parents were more able to go back to work or resume other activities. It concluded that, unless specific measures were taken, the UK would be hit by a second wave, peaking in December and would be twice as big as the first peak. The study then said that this second wave could be prevented if there were some dramatic improvements to the current test and trace programme, with researchers estimating that only 50% of contacts are being traced at present. 

Simon Clarke MP, Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, responded to the study’s findings when speaking to the media this morning and disputed some of the figures, claiming that the number of people being tested and traced is higher. He did, however, acknowledge that the scheme is "maturing” and stressed that the Government is “building an entirely new infrastructure which there's no precedent for” adding that the Government is confident it will improve and that it will allow schools to open safely in the autumn.

The study and the minister’s response highlights one of the most contentious political and policy issues concerning the Government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. The Government has received some sharp criticism over its record on testing – from the initial abandonment of a widespread testing back in March, to the delays and slow rollout subsequently. Boris Johnson had promised a “world-beating” test and trace programme to be in place by June, although it became clear that the UK was less well advanced than many other nations. The progress of contact tracking app, which the Government had previously described as ‘critical’ to the scheme, is still uncertain and has yet to be implemented. More recently, public health officials across England have been increasingly concerned over the lack of access to detailed information in managing local outbreaks. 

However, while many of these criticisms are justified, it is also fair to say that the UK is far from alone in dealing with the challenges of implementing a test and trace regime that can successfully contain the virus. Indeed, with the possible exception of South Korea, there is no overwhelming evidence that such systems will be effective – and even countries that have been seen as more advanced than the UK, such as Germany, are now showing the signs of a second wave. 

This perhaps explains why some obviously unpopular ideas were being floated over the weekend to manage the prospect of a second wave – from closing pubs again to isolating the over-50s. While the Government has stressed that the re-opening of schools is non-negotiable, other measures may have to be in place by Autumn.