England’s Test & Trace chief Dido Harding today claimed it is not her job to know when there might be surges in demand for coronavirus tests.
She said nobody in the organisation predicted that demand for coronavirus tests would surge when schools went back, and refused to say when it might happen again.
Lady Harding, who is the chair of the testing and tracing system and has faced calls to stand down, blamed the start of the new school year for demand ‘significantly outstripping’ test capacity.
September saw huge backlogs in the testing system across the UK, with hundreds complaining they were unable to book tests anywhere near their own home and availability having to be throttled so labs could process the tests that were being done.
In a meeting with MPs this morning, Lady Harding admitted the ‘balance between supply and the demand forecast wasn’t right’.
And when pressed on when the next peak in demand for tests might be, the testing chief repeatedly refused to answer the question and said it wasn’t her job to predict it.
Angry MPs insisted it was and that it was her job to plan for how the system would cope when it came — but she gave no answer and deflected the question to her medical adviser.
Dr Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser to Test & Trace, said that there would be sustained pressure on the test system over winter and that the system would need to be capable of more than the 500,000 per day that officials currently claim it can do.
The Test & Trace system has come under repeated fire from MPs, experts and the public and the Government’s own SAGE committee said it was only having a ‘marginal impact on transmission’ in a scathing report last month.
The multi-billion-pound system – which is largely privatised and run by companies including Serco and Deloitte – has never hit Boris Johnson’s target of turning all tests around within 24 hours and, in the last week of October, failed to reach 40 per cent of potentially infected contacts who had met with people carrying coronavirus.
Baroness Dido Harding, chief of NHS Test & Trace, appeared in front of MPs on the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology committees this morning
Carol Monaghan, the SNP MP for Glasgow North West, asked Lady Harding when she anticipated the next large demand for testing would be.
Lady Harding said: ‘You might want to ask Dr Susan Hopkins for her view because in the end, this is about a view on where we think the disease will progress.’
Chair of the meeting, Greg Clark, interrupted, asking for Lady Harding’s view, and Ms Monaghan also pushed back, saying: ‘It’s about planning – it’s about planning how we’re going to tackle it, as well.’
When pressed by Mr Clark, the testing chief tried to deflect the question again, saying: ‘My view is that we need to keep expanding testing capacity significantly and substantially.’
The meeting’s chair pushed again and Lady Harding said: ‘Honestly, I defer to the clinical experts on that, rather than think of it as my job to know the answer to that question.’
Lady Harding is the interim executive chair of the National Institute for Health Protection, which runs Test and Trace despite its NHS name, meaning she is ultimately accountable for the entire system. She reports to Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary.
She was grilled today by MPs on Parliament’s Health and Social Care and Science and Technology committees this morning, in a session titled ‘Coronavirus: lessons learnt’.
FINANCIAL DIFFICULTY PREVENTING PEOPLE SELF-ISOLATING, HARDING ADMITS
Dido Harding today acknowledged that people may be refusing to self-isolate after being told to by contact tracers because they need to keep earning money.
Current rules in the UK mean that people who are defined as an at-risk contact of someone who has tested positive for coronavirus, and is contacted by Test & Trace, should isolate at home for two weeks after the date of the last contact.
People on low incomes can claim a £500 support payment from the Government, but this only equates to a wage of £6.25 an hour for a 40-hour working week.
Lady Harding admitted that this financial difficulty means some people refuse to self-isolate if they themselves aren’t ill.
Asked whether a more generous system would help, Lady Harding told MPs: ‘All the evidence shows that people are not complying with isolation not because they don’t want to but because they find it very difficult.
‘The need to keep earning and to be able to feed your family is a fundamental element of it which is why I think the financial support payment is a very good thing.’
She said the actual sum of money on offer ‘was a decision for the Government, for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor’.
Professor Dominic Harrison, public health director for Darwen Borough Council in Lancashire, had said earlier in the session: ‘We’re seeing the rates [of self-isolation] are higher amongst middle class professional workers who can work from home, or big city workers in higher-skilled jobs who can work from home… who also continue to get their normal pay while self-isolating.
‘That’s a very different prospect to somebody who is living hand-to-mouth on a basic income and for whom, if they self-isolate, the whole household’s capacity to pay rent and have food is diminished.
‘So we’re not talking about the same challenges across the whole community.’
In September hundreds of people reported being unable to get tested for coronavirus near their homes even though they were ill.
Matt Hancock and Lady Harding at the time blamed a surge in ‘ineligible’ people trying to get tests even though they didn’t have any of the officially recognised symptoms.
Tests were being rationed in areas with only low numbers of cases, they admitted, so that they didn’t run out in areas with rising infection rates. As a result, hundreds of people found the test booking website offering them journeys to test sites dozens or even hundreds of miles from home at a time when they thought they had Covid-19.
Explaining what happened in September, Lady Harding said today: ‘What happened, not so much in August as in September – the first couple of weeks in September, as schools came back – we saw demand significantly outstrip that planned capacity delivery.
‘With the benefit of hindsight, could we have built testing capacity faster? Well I’m not actually sure that anyone could.
‘The reality is that in Scotland you saw the same peak of demand for testing in Scotland as schools came back – none of us were able to predict that in advance.
‘We were moving as fast as a team was capable of doing through the summer to expand that testing capacity…
‘The good news is that, as we stand now, testing is completely unconstrained across all four nations.’
Ms Monaghan replied: ‘You said you were not able to anticipate that when millions of schoolchildren and students went back into schools and university settings that there was going to be an increase in demand.
‘I think many of us would find that difficult to understand.
‘But, I’m going to ask you again, when do anticipate the next major demand for testing is going to be?’
Lady Harding, referencing a similar comment she had made earlier, said: ‘I said that we did not anticipate the exact amount, correct, but we were expecting demand to grow and we were growing capacity faster than any other European country to meet it.
‘With the benefit of hindsight, the balance between supply and the demand forecast wasn’t right, clearly that’s true.
‘But what you’ve also seen in the last six weeks is that we’ve met our commitments to get that supply and demand into balance.’
Asked when demand could increase again, Baroness Harding said: ‘Armed only with my crystal ball, all of us are working so hard with experts in science, in medicine, in behavioural science to understand what may happen as we go forward.’
In the same meeting:
- Lady Harding said most people are complying well with self-isolation and acknowledged it is ‘very hard’, practically, financially and mentally but cannot be replaced until there is scientific proof in favour of a suitable alternative;
- She said the team behind the NHS Covid app are investigating how people will be able to register as vaccinated and to be exempted from contact tracing when the time comes;
- Sir John Bell, testing expert and medicine professor at the University of Oxford, said there is a 70 to 80 per cent chance that the UK could get back to normal after Easter, provided the Government doesn’t ‘screw up’ the vaccination programme;
- Sir John said the public ‘hate’ the self-isolation system and that it is ‘massively ineffective’, meaning people were avoiding coming forward for tests;
- He said most people who think they have Covid-19 are ‘hypochondriacs’ and that only around five per cent actually are infected with the virus;
- And the Oxford professor, who has been critical of rapid tests in the past, said the ones now being used were better than he expected and ‘very impressive indeed’ – and that only six out of 50 made it through his team’s rigorous assessments.
TEST & TRACE FAILS TO REACH 40% OF AT-RISK CONTACTS
England’s Test & Trace system reached a smaller proportion of at-risk people than at any point since it started, official data revealed last week.
The contact tracing programme, which phones, texts and emails people who have been close to someone who later tested positive for Covid-19, failed to get hold of 40 per cent of those potentially infected cases in the week from October 22 to 28.
The 59.9 per cent of contacts who were successfully reached and told to self-isolate was the lowest percentage since the system started in May.
It dropped from 61 per cent the week before and 60 per cent the week before that, and has plummeted from a high of 91 per cent when the programme began.
The system, headed up by call centres operated by private contractor Serco, had to try and get hold of 327,203 contacts in the most recent week when 139,781 people were referred after testing positive. This was more than in any other week.
Its lacklustre performance means that 131,136 people who might have been carrying Covid-19 without knowing it were never told by officials.
One statistics expert from Oxford University, Professor James Naismith, said he wasn’t convinced Test and Trace was having a ‘meaningful impact on the disease’. Labour said it was ‘absolutely vital’ Number 10 uses the next 28 days of lockdown to fix the scheme.
In a glimmer of good news for the well-paid bosses at the helm of the system – some of whom earn £7,000 per day – the time it takes to get people their test results back improved in the most recent week across all parts of the programme. The total number of tests completed, however, was down on the previous week, despite positive cases being higher.