England Virus Tracing Undercut by 20,000 a Day Not Isolating

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At least 20,000 people a day in England are failing to self-isolate after contact with a coronavirus case despite being told to do so, according to the head of the country’s test-and-trace program.

Dido Harding told members of Parliament about 20% of some 100,000 contacts traced by authorities each day last week were not fully complying with regulations, due to a range of reasons including financial difficulties.

She warned the true number of people failing to self-isolate is likely to be far higher because many people do not come forward for tests in the first place.

Virus Tracker: Global Cases 103.9 Million; Deaths 2.25 Million

“Every person who self-isolates when they’re told to plays their part in breaking the chains of transmission,” Harding said.

Those numbers, which Harding cautioned are based on self-reported surveys rather than tracking data, worry officials because they undermine efforts to halt the spread of disease. Reducing transmission rates, with the knock-on effect of lowering the number of people admitted to hospital, is critical to allow lockdown measures to be lifted.

“It is a huge number of people every day who could be passing on the virus who are not isolating in the way we need them to,” Jeremy Hunt, a former Conservative health secretary, said during the science committee hearing Wednesday. “Thousands of people a day is enough to restart the pandemic.”

Financial Hardship

Along with financial difficulties, Harding also cited not understanding the rules, practical issues of needing to get food or medication and mental health issues as reasons why some people are not self-isolating. Hunt said there is a case for the government making up lost earnings in full during self-isolation, rather than offering a one-time payment of 500 pounds ($682).

Jonathan Ashworth, health spokesman for the main opposition Labour Party, said Harding’s comment “confirms our repeated warnings that without decent sick pay and support we won’t break chains of transmission.”

Authorities in England this week stepped up testing in eight areas to try to contain the spread of a coronavirus strain first identified in South Africa, as officials worry about the potential emergence of a mutation that could undermine the U.K.’s vaccine rollout. That issue has again put the focus on contact tracing, which has been hampered throughout the pandemic by the volume of cases running though the track-and-trace program.

“Because you have such a high level of infection in the community, even with the data, it’s hard to actually pinpoint where did you get infected,” Harding said. “The lower the infection rates as you come out of lockdown, the easier it is” to fully chart the path of transmission, she said.

Harding said around 2,500 consultants are working on Test and Trace, each paid an average of 1,100 pounds a day. As the system “matured” and “stabilized,” consultants would be gradually replaced by permanent civil servants, she said.

Regular asymptomatic testing will become increasingly important in the coming months as more people are vaccinated, she added. “We will see a higher proportion of asymptomatic cases than symptomatic cases,” she said.

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