Government’s “abysmal response” means that many suspected cases will have been missed, they warn.

Published (Updated )

Experts are concerned about the UK government’s “ad hoc system” for covid-19 tracking, testing, and contact tracing.

Writing in The BMJ today, academics from Newcastle University, and City, University of London question why the government has eroded England’s established system of local infectious disease control and created a parallel system which relies on private companies for testing and contact tracing.

They say they are concerned by clear and reported failings in this parallel system, warning that many suspected cases will have been missed, and arguing that contact tracing and testing “should be led by local authorities and coordinated nationally.”

Historically, England’s system of communicable disease control has relied on experience and close cooperation between local health services and local authorities, they explain, but that local system has gradually been eroded over several decades.

However, instead of prioritising and rebuilding this system at the start of the COVID-19 epidemic, they suggest the government has created a separate system which steers patients away from GPs, avoids local authorities, and relies on commercial companies and laboratories to track, test, and contact trace.

They point to several areas of concern, including compliance with the notification system for suspected cases, a reliance on outsourced private testing services with no clear public health standards, and a centralised, commercially-run contact tracing programme with no proactive input from local authorities or use of their experience in communicable disease control.

Immediate steps should be taken to ensure that NHS 111 COVID-19 call centres and the COVID-19 clinical assessment service should be reintegrated immediately into primary care and practices resourced to resume care, they write. Official advice to those with COVID-19 symptoms should also be amended to direct them to contact a GP or NHS 111.

These steps, however, “do not amount to a coherent and adequate public health response to the epidemic in England,” they warn. “Such a response requires local authorities, NHS, and PHE laboratories to be sufficiently resourced to take the lead on contact tracing and testing, and general practices being resourced to support patients, under central coordination."

There’s still time to change tack on this ad hoc system for COVID-19 tracking, testing, and contact tracing, they say. England must rebuild and reintegrate a strong communicable disease control system, and they urge the secretary of state to make this happen.

Co-author of the analysis, Alison Macfarlane, Professor of Perinatal Health, City, University of London, commented:

The run-down of the established system has had knock-on effects on the availability of data locally. The fragmented private system which the government has introduced has no consistent strategy for data collection and is unable to make the data needed for contact tracing available locally, so impeding the work which is needed.