Test and Trace could be crucial for schools in England going back - but does the system work?

Tuesday, 4th August 2020, 4:27 pm
Updated Tuesday, 4th August 2020, 4:27 pm
Scientists claim the current system is not adequate enough (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Test and Trace system in England is currently not adequate enough to prevent a second wave of coronavirus cases after schools reopen in September, scientists have warned.

A new study has claimed that reopening schools in the UK would inevitably result in another outbreak of coronavirus that will peak in December, unless contact tracing is dramatically improved.

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Is the Test and Trace system effective?

Scientists have claimed that the current Test and Trace system is not adequate enough to prevent a second wave of the virus when schools reopen.

This is because the contact tracing system must reach at least 68 per cent of people who have tested positive for coronavirus, and their contacts, in order to contain the spread.

However, the current system only reaches 50 per cent of contacts and only a small fraction of symptomatic cases are tested, according to researchers from University College London (UCL) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organization's special envoy on Covid-19, explained that coronavirus is "capable of surging back really quickly", highlighting the importance of being able to trace, test and isolate people effectively.

He said: “If we can do that, and do it well, then the surges are kept really small, they're dealt with quickly and life can go on.”

Why does the system need improving?

Scientists used computer models to assess how the virus could spread in the UK after pupils return to schools, allowing parents the opportunity to go back to work or resume other activities.

Scientists warned that parents no longer having to stay at home would increase transmission, and without improvements in testing, other measures will be needed to help mitigate the effects of schools reopening in September.

Such measures could include pubs being forced to shut again, or restrictions reimposed on people meeting indoors, as is currently the case in parts of Northern England following a spike in cases.

The UK government's chief medical adviser, Prof Chris Whitty, recently warned that "we are near the limit" of what we can do without causing a resurgence.

It is predicted that a second wave could occur in the UK around December 2020 and would be twice as large as the first peak, unless actions are taken by the government, such as reimposing lockdown.

The study, published in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, shows that a second wave could be prevented if:

  • both 75 per cent of people with coronavirus symptoms were found and 68 per cent of their contacts traced or;
  • both 87 per cent of people with symptoms were found and 40 per cent of their contacts traced

However, at present, the Test and Trace system in England is not yet meeting these levels and a major scale-up in testing is required to minimise the risk of a second wave.